Marshall University Community Oral Health Team

The Marshall University Community Oral Health Team and Recovery Point West Virginia have teamed up to restore healthy smiles to men recovering from substance use disorder and addiction. Recovering with a Smile is an innovative program funded by a Core Priorities grant from the Pallottine Foundation of Huntington that provides free, comprehensive dental care to men at Recovery Point’s Huntington campus.

Oral health care is essential to successful substance use recovery for many reasons. It not only improves the client’s health, confidence, and quality of life, but it reduces the likelihood of setbacks and relapse resulting from dental pain.

“I used meth for a lot of years and narcotics with it,” said Jeremy Young, a 33-year-old who began his journey at Recovery Point seven months ago. “Before I started using, I always took good care of my teeth and always had a pretty smile. As the years progressed, meth just took them out. The more teeth I lost, the more confidence I lost. I went to jail and got sent to Recovery Point. When I got here, I had four front teeth and didn’t like to smile.

“Now, I have so much to smile about, but I just don’t feel comfortable,” he continued. “Knowing that I’m getting dentures gives me something to look forward to. It’s going to help me so much mentally and emotionally – that’s what people don’t realize. I’ll be able to go home with a good smile and be confident. At job interviews, I won’t be missing my teeth and it will help my self-esteem and my pride. It’s amazing what a set of teeth will do for someone who’s in recovery. Like how much hope and strength that will give them.”

Until recently, dental care was not considered an integral part of recovery programs, despite the ever-growing need for it. Recovering with a Smile provides that service to residents at Recovery Point by removing any barriers to oral health. The Community Oral Health Team uses portable equipment to provide treatment and education onsite at Recovery Point, as well as at the Marshall Dental Clinic when needed.

“Dental care is very important for these guys because when they come in, they don’t have any type of insurance and they have teeth that need pulled,” said Ray McWilliams, Recovery Point Program Director in Huntington. “This program helps them get their smile back and they’re very appreciative. It is such a blessing for [the Oral Health Team] to come in and create their own office on campus, and to show so much care in helping these guys.”

Access to dental care for those in recovery is limited for many reasons. Some dentists shy away because drug use creates dental problems that are challenging to manage and treat. Also, many patients in recovery have severe treatment needs and a higher threshold for pain management, which makes them more difficult to numb. Social stigma also limits access.

“Some dentists don’t want to see an ‘addict,’ and we have found that dental offices often aren’t very friendly to people in recovery,” Bobbi Jo Muto, MPH, RDH, CTTS, Project Coordinator with the Community Oral Health Team. “There is also a high turnover rate in recovery programs, and offices don’t want their schedules to fall apart if patients don’t show up.”

As recovery progresses, the need and desire for a healthy smile is also essential for job placement and interviews.

“We were seeing a lot of men coming out of recovery without an employable smile,” Muto said. “Even if they could get extractions, they didn’t have any teeth left. One gentleman was saying he was scheduled to graduate from Recovery Point in three months, but he wanted to stay long enough to get his health issues taken care of because he knew he couldn’t afford it after graduation. He said he knew what the answer would be when he got a toothache, couldn’t get in to see a doctor, and needed pain medication. He would be right back in recovery again.”