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Jesuit Father John Hatcher with Creighton University dental students at the St. Francis Mission Dental Clinic.
Jesuits’ St. Francis Mission Improves Dental Care for Underserved

December 22, 2014 — It was a banner year for the St. Francis Mission Dental Clinic, which opened in 2012 to provide care for the Sioux Lakota people on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Jesuit Father John Hatcher, president of St. Francis Mission, saw the tremendous need for dental care in his community. The reservation is located in one of the nation’s poorest counties, and before the clinic opened, there was only one dentist available for 20,000 people.

According to the American Dental Association, 90 percent of the Lakota people on the Rosebud Reservation have chronic tooth decay or gum disease, and about 40 percent of children and 60 percent of adults have moderate to urgent dental needs. There is typically no adult or juvenile preventive care; most people do not have dental insurance; and Medicare or Medicaid doesn’t cover a large number of residents.

This year, the clinic provided dental exams, X-rays, fillings, root canals, cleanings and follow-up checkups to 500 patients. Every patient is eligible for treatment regardless of his or her ability to pay, though donations are requested. Through its benefactors, St. Francis Mission makes up the shortfall.

The clinic, which now has four dental chairs, relies on volunteer dentists, hygienists and dental students. Volunteers include members of the South Dakota Dental Association as well as students and faculty from the Creighton University School of Dentistry in Omaha, Nebraska, and from many other states around the country.

Most people on the Rosebud Reservation have never seen a dentist and have never learned how to care for their teeth. "Dental health and quality of life are intertwined. Poor dental health causes all sorts of physical and emotional difficulties, including pain and insecurity," says Fr. Hatcher. "Because there has been an acute shortage of dentists and dental health care providers on the reservation, maintaining good dental health has been difficult, if not impossible, for a great majority of our population."

To counter this, the clinic is focusing on preventive care and dental health education by teaching the children of Sapa Un Academy about proper dental hygiene. Plans to expand the clinic include offering oral surgery and more complex procedures.

"This is a humanitarian crisis, and we will do whatever it takes to address it," says Fr. Hatcher. "My job as pastor of the six churches on the reservation is to take care of the spiritual and physical welfare of the people here. We have to reach out to those who are hurting."

For more information on St. Francis Mission, click here. Those interested in making donations to the mission are encouraged to email or call 605-319-1275. [Sources: St. Francis Mission Dental Clinic, Wisconsin Province Jesuits, American Dental Association]

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