Chris Graham, 24, arrives with his mother, Sandra Graham, for a visit to the dentist’s office.
He stands quietly, nonchalantly, like he has been here before. He sits in the waiting “room” in his usual seat by the steering wheel — no apparent signs of nervousness or displeasure.
But his mother is aware of his anxiety.
“I don’t think he enjoys it actually, but it’s a thing that has to be done,” Sandra said. “I think we all have a fear of the dentist.”
The circumstances surrounding both Chris and the dentist’s office are a bit different than usual.
Chris has been deaf and autistic since birth. And his dentist’s office is inside the confines of the Elks Mobile Dental Unit, a mobile home, right next door to Columbia’s Elks Lodge.
The unit is part of the Missouri Elks Dental Care Program. The program provides free dental care to people who are mentally or developmentally disabled and to financially distressed people who have a reference letter from the local Elks Lodge. The program also serves children ages 3 to 21 who are registered with the Bureau of Special Health Care Needs.
The program was established in 1962 as a way to help meet the needs of disabled children who had trouble getting treatment from local dentists. The state later secured a federal grant associated with the WIC program to expand coverage to others who needed dental services.
Anna Keesler, 51, has been a mobile dental assistant for the past 13 years. She lives in Jefferson City but makes the drive to Columbia each Monday through Thursday to help with X-rays and cleanings.
“We have clients who have been coming to us for 20 years,” Keesler said. “If we were not doing their dentistry, then no one would do it.”
She said the mobile unit averages 30 to 40 patients a week. The wheelchair accessible unit is supplied with everything found in a regular dental office.
There is a small waiting room near the front of the trailer with a retractable curtain that leads to the area where dental care commences.
Patrons will find a regular dentist chair waiting for them where resident dentist Roy Clemons, 58, performs check-ups, X-rays, extractions and fillings. There is even a small heater to warm the room.
The Elks provide three units that provide service across Missouri. Each unit covers a different region of the state and is operated year-round.
Sandra Graham said the program was a blessing for Chris, who started dental checkups with the Elks Mobile Unit when he was 5.
“It’s just nice to have them,” she said. “Most dentists don’t know how to work with some individuals. But these people have patience and understanding.”
The unit is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday through Dec. 23.