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How Access to Dental Care Could Mean Life or Death

Photo: Courtesy of Matthew Wall

Matthew Wall needed a bone marrow transplant. He had an acute and aggressive form of leukemia that the transplant could treat. He found a donor match and began examinations to move forward with his transplant but he hit a snag — his oral health.

“Dental clearance is one of the required examinations prior to moving forward with an allogeneic stem cell transplant,” said Casey Dubov, Wall’s transplant coordinator at the Fox-Chase Temple Bone Marrow Transplant Program in Philadelphia. “Following a transplant, patients are immunocompromised and we fear pre-existing dental issues may progress to more complicated infections post-transplant.”

One man’s story

Wall was first diagnosed with chronic leukemia in 2004 and began chemotherapy treatments, which gradually weakened gums and teeth over the following decade. His latest acute leukemia diagnosis necessitated a bone marrow transplant, and this required his decaying teeth to be extracted due to the risk of spreading infection.

“Often times, people don’t think of a cavity or bleeding gums as an infection,” said Larry Coffee, founder of Dental Lifeline Network, a nonprofit that connects patients who have disabilities, are elderly or medically compromised with a growing network of dentists and specialists who donate their services. “When overlooked, dental issues can impact their overall health.”

Finding a way 

Limited insurance coverage, restrictions with Medicaid dental programs, lack of any dental coverage in Medicare and overall costs prevent many from accessing proper dental care. Wall has Medicare, but it would not cover the medically necessary dental care that was preventing him from moving forward with the transplant.

“No one was willing to do it [at a discount],” said Wall’s fiancée Kimberly. “It was going to cost $4,000. I was looking into taking out a loan.” Wall was referred to the Donated Dental Services (DDS) program operated by Dental Lifeline Network Pennsylvania. Coordinators quickly linked him with a team of volunteers.

Life saver

Oral Surgeon Dr. Justin Burns of Northeastern PA Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery extracted Wall’s remaining teeth, which allowed him to be readmitted to the hospital in time to receive his transplant.

“These programs are vital to increase access to care for people like Matthew who would otherwise not be able to afford it,” said Dr. Burns. “Without programs like DDS, Matthew may not have gotten the procedure that saved his life.”

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