LAKEWOOD RANCH — On a normal day at school, Stephanie Cole sticks tools inside Harry’s lifeless jaw.
Cole, 24, a first-year student at LECOM Student of Dental Medicine, sometimes scrapes and nudges Harry’s white, solid cheeks.
Her margin for error is great.
That’s because Harry feels nothing — he’s is a mannequin.
Until Jan. 10, Cole’s learning did not include live patients.
Now, Cole and the rest of LECOM’s 100 dental-student inaugural class are fitting 30 low-income patients with dentures at the school’s new patient clinic.
Students work with a patient — some with no teeth, others with worn dentures — for nine to 10 weeks, one day a week, during three-hour appointments.
The Manatee Community Coalition on Homelessness refers some of the patients.
Those patients receive free care.
Others in underserved, low-income areas get care through contacting the school.
Those patients get dentures for one-third less than what it would cost at a private clinic, said Michael Polin, LECOM spokesman.
LECOM donated $10,000 materials and services to provide the care.
It all fits into LECOM’s core philosophy of giving students early clinical experience, no matter the pace, said Dr. Francis M. Curd, the school’s assistant dean of clinical education.
“The fees are low, but we are slow,” Curd said, repeating the common refrain school officials tell patients.
Since Jan. 10, Cole has slowly fitted Ken Murry, a 48-year-old fork lifter at Tropicana who recently returned to his job after being laid off earlier this year.
The Jewish Family & Children’s Services of Sarasota-Manatee referred Murry, who wants to be able to eat cashews again.
Cole and Murry spent their first appointment together developing a treatment plan and making the first impression, or an initial imprint of the teeth meant to fit the dentures to a person’s mouth.
Cole, a Sarasota native, was excited but felt scared.
Murry bit down on a custom tray, which Cole prepared, full of cakey wax.
This was it — she had begun her first real-life procedure.
Cole never got much out of mixing polysulfide in a dark, quiet classroom. Videos and lectures left her bored.
Shadowing real dentists just made her want to put on the gloves, hop onto a stool and dig tools into a patient’s mouth.
“Until I apply, it doesn’t stick,” Cole said. “But now I’m beginning to experience the real thing, dealing with people’s emotions, and it reminds me of why I do it. I do it because it (dental care) changes peoples lives.”
During their second meeting, Cole worked on border molding to ensure Murry’s tissue retains the dentures.
The third appointment is the most important. That is when Cole makes the final impression.
She tells Murry if this step isn’t done right, the rest of their time together will mean nothing.
The process intrigues Murry — how the repetitive, intricate work leads to a tangible end result.
“It’s quite interesting to watch (Cole) work,” Murry said. “She explains every step. I learn what she learns. And at the end, I get to see myself smile.”
Murry will get his dentures in March.
In June, LECOM will start a second denture clinic for about 50 patients. This round won’t be free, but, according to Curd, a full set of dentures will cost $668, still less than it would cost at a private practice.
Comprehensive care, including cavities, crowns, cleanings and more, will be made available to the public March 2014, midway through the four-year journey for LECOM’s inaugural class, which will graduate in 2016.
“I’m really lucky to get a patient who is so patient and cooperative,” Cole said. “Life is not complete until you make a difference. I am already doing that here.”
Contact Josh Siegel at email@example.com.