Concern grows for pediatric dental care in Cherokee

by Apr 26, 2021Front Page, Health



One Feather Staff 


Dental care wasn’t the first worry for most people when the pandemic brought life to a screeching halt last Spring. 

Schools, places of work, and restaurants all closed their doors. Day-to-day routines were shattered. Among all of this, health care started becoming an issue. People couldn’t see hospitalized family members, and previously basic procedures become near impossible feats. 

Mellie Burns, center, EBCI/PHHS Children’s Dental Program manager, delivered 700 oral health kits to the Cherokee Elementary School on the morning of Thursday, April 8. She is shown with Jess Walkingstick, fifth grader, and Addie Martin, Pre-K, at the school. “We’re just really trying to promote a good dental health message,” said Burns. She related earlier that the program is not able to provide the routine services at the school due to COVID-19 restrictions. “But, I wanted to ensure all students had the needed supplies to care for their teeth and, in small way, continue to promote good health health habits.” (SCOTT MCKIE B.P./One Feather photo)

Pediatric dental care has been one of those systems that have taken a major hit the last year. Mellie Burns, director of the Tribal Children’s Dental Program of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, wants to bring awareness to this issue. 

“There’s a huge sense of loss, but a greater sense of concern for the children,” said Burns.  “Over the past 12 years, we have seen a tremendous decrease in the number of children we identify as having urgent dental needs. Those numbers were just going down and down and down and down, which is great. That’s what we want. So, my biggest concern at this point is whenever I’m allowed to start screening children again, I’m going to see that number take a tremendous jump. Just because access to care has been greatly affected.”

Burns has been working for the Tribe for 13 years, and addressing dental care at the minimal to moderate level of need in children has been her focus since she started.

“Our function as a program is to provide dental health education and prevention services in a fun and engaging fashion for children,” she said.  “Prior to the pandemic, what I have done for 12 years is I go on-site to Cherokee Central Schools, daycares, and I provide dental screenings for all those children face-to-face.”

For her, COVID-19 has meant a complete shift in her role in Cherokee. She is no longer able to make her visits to the school, and most of the day-to-day operations of her program are kaput.

“I hate to use this terminology, but from those types of public health services that I provide, it’s kind of put me in a standstill. It really has,” said Burns.

She has kept herself busy in other ways, including being a member of the EBCI Mass Vaccination team. She also recently delivered 700 oral health kits to Cherokee Central Schools, the same sort of kits that she would give kids when she ran her programs and screenings. The Nashville USET office gave these kits to Tribal Public Health and Human Services (PHHS). Burns also gathered supplies to bring similar care packages to all the local schools she visits. These include the New Kituwah Academy, Agelink Daycare, Kaleidoscope Dream Daycare, and Chekelelee and Snowbird Child Development.

The only option on the Boundary currently is the Cherokee Indian Hospital’s dental clinic. Leigah Custer, dental assistant supervisor, says they are still working on getting up to full speed.

“Initially, with the peak of COVID, we had to stop all services, and then the majority of the clinic except two people were furloughed,” said Custer.

When the operations slowly began opening, the situation didn’t get much easier. There is currently only one pediatric dental provider for the hospital – Dr. Lucy Komorowski, DMD.

“When everyone came back, we had two for a brief moment, and then one left,” said Custer.  “We only have one pediatric dental provider. So, our services are cut down due to that, just being short-staffed. She’s just by herself. She’s mainly just taking emergencies.” 

She said that they are hoping to fill that vacancy soon. Until then, almost all of the services offered for pediatric dental care will be to cover emergencies.

A flyer from the Tribal Children’s Dental Clinic encourages youth to practice good dental hygiene.

Consuela Girty, director of the Hope Center and Pre-K, shares Burns’ concerns about this gap in primary dental care.

“It’s pretty impactful. You don’t realize how quick dental health can get out of hand. Even with my own children, I’m worried. Because we haven’t been to the dentist in well over a year when we’re used to six months checkups.”

Girty often works with Burns to set up her visits. She makes sure her students’ oral hygiene is taken care of, with kids usually brushing their teeth at school. That is one of the many things that has ceased due to COVID protocols. Girty said that this isn’t a situation that should be taken lightly.

“Especially with our Pre-K program. With our particular program, we tend to serve high-needs children. Whether it be educational, income, whatever their need may be, we can serve those children. Those are typically the ones that you need to catch in the school setting, and without that screening being offered, it’s going to be hard,” said Girty.

She says that so much of it comes to routine. The pandemic has uprooted the day-to-day, and Girty says it’s had a severe impact on younger children. She said that is apparent as schools have returned to operation. The little things, like parents walking in their kids to the classroom.

“There are so many details that people don’t see, and you don’t realize how tiring and how hard and stressful it is. And honestly, how sad. Because it breaks your heart that you can’t do these things that you know are developmentally appropriate for this child. And you know they need it.”

Burns says that many of the issues with dental health may seem small, but they have a habit of escalating if they aren’t properly treated.

“I’m not overly worried about children ending up in excruciating dental pain or having extremely serious dental problems because I feel like the hospital has that plan in place. I think where we are going to be behind the eight ball when things open back up again is we are going to see a lot of children with dental problems that are at the minimal to moderate range. Whereas if we were at full speed, we’re catching them before they even get to minimal,” said Burns.

She says that she has a fantastic relationship with the schools and the people who work at them. Often, she’ll receive calls from concerned teachers or discuss strategies with administrators.

“I have desperately missed being in the schools and seeing these children on a routine basis. I’m hopeful that in the Fall of this year, things will be in a better circumstance so that I can begin to offer those services again.”

Not being able to offer fun education and assistant to kids on and around the Boundary has made for long and stressful days for Burns. Eventually, she’ll be back in the classroom. Then the next generation of kids will get a visit from who many have deemed the Tooth Fairy.