Seeking heroes in our own time, the Review-Journal annually asks the public to nominate people who in the past year took serious risks to life, career, financial well-being or other personal interests for the greater good of humanity. This is the second of six "Nevada Profiles in Courage" about some of those brave hearts who performed such deeds in 2007. Look for others each day through Saturday.
Mark Escoto wasn't like other kids. He enjoyed going to the dentist; it was part of the reason he became one.
He describes his childhood dentist, James Ence, as "the nicest man in the world, just a real caring man" who always made his office visits pleasant.
His positive association with dentistry early in life and his love of children -- he has six of his own -- convinced Escoto to duplicate that experience for others. Since early last year, he has provided free dental care to children and youths in the residential program at Boys Town Nevada, a nonprofit that serves abused, abandoned and neglected girls and boys.
So far, Escoto has treated about 50 of them at "A Beautiful Smile," one of his two practices in northwest Las Vegas. Their dental exams, X-rays, fillings, cleanings and crowns otherwise would have earned him about $28,000.
This ongoing charity, plus a nonprofit corporation he recently established to accept donations for their future dental expenses, has earned him a nomination for the 2007 Profiles in Courage.
"They smile, and they are happy to be here, and they appreciate what I do," says Escoto, who is 44. "So, you know, can you put a price on that? All it is, is my time. So I make a little more extra time in my day."
It's not unusual for local dentists to give free or discounted care to needy patients, says Victor Sandoval, a department chairman of the dental medicine school at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Many dentists are contacted by the clinics on an as-needed basis. There also are occasional events, such as Saturday Children's Clinic or the annual Give Kids a Smile, both of which are held at the dental school in collaboration with local dentists.
But Escoto says a few things make his Boys Town partnership singular. Besides targeting a specific nonprofit, he has enlisted the help of other dental professionals.
Oral surgeon Patrick O'Connor has pulled some of the kids' teeth; endondontists David Fife and Douglas Rakich have either performed root canals or agreed to do so.
After establishing a maintenance regimen and educating the young patients about oral health care, Escoto plans to expand his informal referral network beyond Las Vegas. That way, if a child gets placed in a home in say, Laughlin, a dentist there could pick up where Escoto left off.
"My goal is to make sure no children fall through the cracks," he says. "They are in a transitional-type environment ... I want their dental work to be finished."
The Boys Town venture isn't Escoto's first brush with professional altruism. He has helped the Huntridge Teen Clinic and Donated Dental Services, to name a few programs.
Escoto says the Boys Town arrangement was prompted by his desire to take on an entire group of young patients.
Tom Waite, the organization's executive director, says it gives him peace of mind. He no longer scrambles to find someone to take dental emergencies.
He estimates that 80 percent of Boys Town patients, who range from 10 to 18 years old, are on Medicaid. The rest have private or no insurance.
"We have a continuous need for dental care," Waite says. "Often, our kids' dental care is missed in their ongoing medical coverage."
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than 20 million children lack insurance for dental care, which is the most prevalent unmet health need for that age group. A Kaiser commission report last year said only 10 percent of dentists nationwide accept Medicaid patients, mostly because of low reimbursement rates.
And many of those who do accept Medicaid limit the number of patients they take.
Escoto's arrangement with Boys Town makes insurance a moot point.
The dentist says these patients overall came to him in good dental health. He hasn't seen any cases of advanced periodontal disease as he has among other patients in their age group.
Escoto's nonprofit, Gift of a Beautiful Smile, was inspired by offers of financial help from other patients who wanted to donate to the Boys Town cause. Proceeds will be used to defray lab fees and the cost of materials across the dental care spectrum, including braces and implants.
Having healthy teeth and gums can help the kids build confidence in social interactions, Escoto says. Tooth decay or periodontal disease can cause bad breath, while the pain from untreated problems can cause irritability and an inability to concentrate in school.
"I always emphasis to people that a healthy mouth is paramount," he says. "It makes a big difference in the way you seem or feel."
Thursday: Meet the Army wife who organized the home front to support Nevada National Guard soldiers serving in Iraq.