Beyond the Card: Muskegon Residents Trade Volunteer Hours for Dental Treatment

Julie Bitely

| 4 min read

When Kevin Landingham started dialysis sessions four years ago to treat his high blood pressure, his oral health was the last thing on his mind. He’d just had a dentist appointment through Muskegon County’s Veterans Affairs (VA) Agency to get one cavity filled, but other than that, his mouth was fine. Due to the bad taste the medication used in conjunction with the dialysis left in his mouth, he started relying on sour candies during his treatment sessions. “I ate a lot of candy,” he said. The Muskegon Heights resident ended up with 10 cavities, including a molar that eventually had to be pulled. He also felt terrible. “I thought I was getting sick or catching a cold,” Landingham said. “I just didn’t know it was my teeth doing that.” The VA couldn’t accommodate his dental needs, and private dental practices were out of his reach due to price. He ended up hearing about a program called Muskegon Volunteer for Dental Care (MVDC) and decided to give it a shot. The program provides access to urgent dental care and education through a pay-it-forward dental partnership for low-income, uninsured adults. Modeled after a successful Calhoun County program, local dentists volunteer their services for patients like Landingham, who in turn are required to perform a certain number of volunteer hours in the community to “pay” for the dental care they receive. The Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation awarded MVDC a two-year, $50,000 grant to support the work they’re doing, which is direly needed in Muskegon County. A 2012 Community Health Needs Assessment showed that 74 percent of adult respondents in the county went without dental care due to cost-related barriers such as high co-pays or cost of insurance. Other supporters include the Muskegon County Community Foundation, Mercy Health’s Health Project, the Muskegon District Dental Society and the Alcoa Foundation. The program placed Landingham in the care of Dr. John Leitner, a dentist with a practice in Grand Haven. Leitner serves a number of MVDC patients and said he likes the pay-it-forward nature of the initiative. “I like that it’s more than just good health care, it’s community involvement,” Leitner said. He’s had diabetic patients able to reduce their reliance on insulin as a result of dental treatment. Leitner explains that oral inflammation can affect other areas of the body. Fixing that can lead to better overall health. He also connects with patients on an emotional level. For someone who hasn’t been able to smile or who is in constant pain, being seen by a dentist is a big deal. Patients have cried in his chair. The staff in Leitner’s office huddle every morning to discuss the day’s incoming patients. Special attention is paid to MVDC visitors, something Landingham noticed immediately. He said he was welcomed just like any other patient by everyone on staff and has grown to completely trust Dr. Leitner. Together, they’ve addressed eight of Landingham’s 10 cavities so far. Once the last two are filled, he’ll move into maintenance mode. “He’s a wonderful dentist. He loves what he does and I just can’t say enough good things about him,” Landingham said. Through the program’s educational component, Landingham has the tools he needs to stay cavity free long into the future. He now brushes and flosses every day and has switched to using Xylitol gum at his dialysis appointments. He carries around MVDC cards everywhere he goes so he can tell others about the life-changing program. “I gained my health back,” Landingham said. For his part, he enjoys volunteering at Hope’s Outlet Ministries, a thrift shop in Muskegon. Being able to pay for treatment by giving back is important for dental care recipients and the dentists who provide care, say program director and founder Jackie Balcom-Lindrup and program coordinator Suzanne Tanis. Before receiving service, volunteers must attend a dental health class and complete at least four or eight hours of community service, depending on their needs. Other organizations that benefit from program volunteers include the American Red Cross, Goodwill Industries, Kids’ Food Basket, the Muskegon Humane Society, and many more. “It is really important to the dentists to know that patients have already volunteered their time prior to treatment,” Balcom-Lindrup said. “It’s a win-win for the patient, the dentist and the community.” From Jan. 2014 through Dec. 2015, the program helped 177 people, who logged 6,126 volunteer hours in the community. In that same time, local dentists provided 522 professional dental services worth $166,578. Between the hours volunteered by patients and the services provided by dental professionals, the program has given $319,728 back to the community in its first two years. This post is part of a storytelling series we call, “Beyond the Card.” These stories will feature Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan members, employees, and communities who are making meaningful differences throughout our state. We invite you to follow Beyond the Card stories here at and through the hashtag, #BeyondtheCard on our social channels. If you have a story you would like to share, please feel free to contact us Photo credit: Julie Bitely
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