Dentists take some of the pain out of job losses

William Myers II never thought it would happen to him and his family.

For more than 20 years, they had always paid their own way when it came to medical care -- as a well paid construction worker, he saw to that.

But then came the economic downturn and the loss of his job with health insurance.

And suddenly his 14-year-old son's toothache was a bigger deal than he might have expected.

"I'm just amazed this was able to happen," the 43-year-old Myers said of a program last Saturday at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas' School of Dental Medicine that saw more than 150 UNLV dental students, faculty members and local dentists provide free care to patients.

Among them were his son, William III, and about 250 other young Southern Nevadans.

"It makes you feel good that there are people out there like this," Myers said.

At least 150 other youngsters had to be turned away from the seventh annual "Give Kids A Smile" program. The effort is aimed at low income families nationwide and sponsored by the American Dental Association.

"There's no doubt that the economy has had a lot to do with this turnout," said Dr. Karen West, dean of the dental school, as she watched the lines grow Saturday morning at the facility off Charleston Avenue and Shadow Lane. "We could have easily seen 400 kids. People who never thought they'd be part of this kind of program are here."

The elder Myers said the loss of a good paying construction job -- he's found another job for less money with fewer benefits -- has dramatically changed his family's life.

They lost a home they had owned for 10 years, as well as two cars. His wife was out of work for 11 months before she got a job as a desk clerk at the Mount Charleston Hotel.

It was through a friend that he heard about the UNLV event, held in conjunction with the Southern Nevada Dental Society.

"My son was having problems for some time and we weren't able to do anything," said Myers, the father of four who said he had never availed himself of any kind of free program before. "It feels wonderful that there was something for him."

Not all parents at the event were as willing as Myers to talk about their children's use of the program.

"I'm glad it's here," a woman said, declining to give her name. "But I find it embarrassing that I can no longer afford even basic care for my child."

Dr. Frank Bruno, a local dentist, said the economy is a large part of why he donated his expertise to the program for the first time this year.

"You just have a feeling that we all have to help one another to get through this," he said. "There's an awful lot of people hurting right now. You feel especially bad for the kids because they're so innocent in all this."

Bruno examined 12-year-old Cinthya Huendo, disabled at birth, as she sat in her wheelchair. The dental school has a special apparatus for the chair that allows it to be tilted safely by practitioners.

"My dad works in construction but he doesn't make much money," she said.

Bruno said Cinthya didn't have any cavities.

"I try to be a good girl and floss every day," she said.

Dr. Peter Balle, president-elect of the Nevada Dental Association, said it's impressive that military dental personnel and hygienists affiliated with the Southern Nevada Dental Hygiene Association and the College of Southern Nevada Hygiene Program pitched in.

"It was a community effort in helping kids," he said. "We need to see more of that."

Dr. Matt Peers, who graduated from the UNLV dental school last year, said what inspires him is that much of the work that couldn't be finished Saturday will be finished in the offices of private practitioners around the valley.

Myers, whose son had a tooth pulled Saturday, does know of one way the pro bono program could be improved.

"I wish there was something for adults, too," he said. "An awful lot of us can't afford dental care right now."

Contact reporter Paul Harasim at or 702-387-2908.