British Columbia

Downtown Eastside Dental Clinic a last resort for patients with little or no income

The not-for-profit dental clinic on East Hastings Street won't turn anyone away, even if they can't pay. But it has struggled to stay open. Without stable funding, clinic manager Lex Vides says it's not sustainable.

The volunteer-run clinic, which won't turn anyone away, is looking for more funding to expand hours, services

A dentist gives Nickolas Dergousoff two fillings. Dergousoff says the clinic was his only option when he had a massive tooth infection and couldn't afford another dentist. (CBC/Tristan Le Rudulier)

At its worst, the infection in Nickolas Dergousoff's molar was so painful he was taking antibiotics and more than a dozen painkillers a day.

Over the span of two years, the infection became so deep it was starting to affect movement in his neck and jaw. 

By November 2018, the 24-year-old was desperate for help. He needed a root canal and couldn't afford the quotes he got from dental clinics, which ranged from $770 to $1,500 for a specialist.

Instead, a volunteer dentist at the Downtown Eastside Dental Clinic did it for $150. Dergousoff added an extra $180 donation — paying a total of $330 — but he wouldn't have been turned away if he couldn't afford to pay anything.

He's returned many times since for fillings and other services. 

"If the clinic wasn't here I don't know what I would have done," he said.

"There's not any solutions in Vancouver for this type of situation. My only option was this."

No one turned away

Operated by the Vancouver Native Health Society, the dental clinic has been open for 11 years on East Hastings Street.

The non-profit clinic is staffed by volunteer dentists. It's open three days a week and survives almost entirely on donations from patients, or those with some dental coverage. 

If a patient has no income and can't pay, they won't be turned away.

On a recent Friday morning, a lineup formed outside the door. Inside, four dentists were busy filling cavities and extracting teeth from patients lying on donated dental chairs. 

Bruce Ward has been a volunteer dentist at the clinic since it opened. He says it's the only one of its kind in Vancouver that offers services like complicated extractions and root canals for free.

Ward treats up to nine patients during a shift. They include people who are homeless, seniors, the working poor, and those with mental health issues.

Vancouver hospitals will give antibiotics or painkillers to patients, but they won't treat dental emergencies, he said. 

"Mostly it's pain and it's broken teeth, it's pieces of teeth, it's abscesses and people who have been up a couple of days and have no place to go to get rid of that pain," he said.

"They need somebody, and I think that brings all of us here."

Dentist Bruce Ward has volunteered at the clinic since it opened. He often sees patients who suffer from dental pain and can't get emergency dental services from a hospital. (CBC/Tristan Le Rudulier)

'It's not sustainable'

Clinic manager Lex Vides is the only full-time staff member and says finances are his biggest challenge. The clinic breaks even, but its $100,000 a year budget is what most clinics would budget for one month, he said. 

There have been times he wasn't sure the clinic could remain open.

"The idea of how I'm going to survive and how difficult is it going to be for the next month is just depressing. It's an ongoing battle and I think that is the fire that keeps me going," he said. 

"My mandate here is providing a public service and I'm happy with doing that. But the challenge is it's not sustainable."

My mandate here is providing a public service and I'm happy with doing that. But the challenge is it's not sustainable.- Lex Vides

The clinic does not receive government funding and securing funding for the clinic has been an ongoing challenge, said Barry Seymour, interim executive director of the Vancouver Native Health Society.

Increased funding would mean the clinic could expand its range of services, open full-time and provide more training opportunities for future dentists.

The funding might not be there, but he says a steady stream of patients shows there is a demand.

"The lack of funding has had a negative impact in regards to our ability to provide more services," he said.

"With funding, we would be able to do more for the community that we serve."

Clinic manager Lex Vides says operating a dental clinic on donations from patients alone has been challenging. (CBC/Tristan Le Rudulier)

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