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January 27, 2019

Oral Health on Wheels, a mobile service-learning classroom bringing dental health care to people in need

Imagine you live in a country where you don’t speak the language. Or you’re expecting a baby while living near or below the poverty line. Put yourself in the shoes of an adult with significant developmental or physical impairments.

Having your teeth cleaned every six months probably wouldn’t be high on your to-do list. That’s where Johnson County Community College’s dental hygiene students pick up the slack.

Practical, hands-on experience is required in the dental hygiene program. Second-year students rotate through offsite clinical affiliates every two to three weeks, treating patients off campus at Truman Medical Center, Vibrant Health clinics, and the Veterans Administrations in Topeka and Kansas City.

It’s great experience, the students will say, but the Oral Health on Wheels (OHOW) is life-changing.

Have scalers, will travel

OHOW is the brainchild of Heather Samuel, Professor of Dental Hygiene. Since 2008, OHOW has provided service-learning and student enrichment necessary to accreditation-required education treating patients with special needs.

At 10 feet by 43 feet, the custom-designed truck is decked out with everything students need to provide a thorough cleaning, including:

  • Two treatment rooms with full-sized dental chairs and lights
  • Patient waiting area
  • X-ray equipment
  • Sterilization unit
  • Digital imaging
  • Wheelchair lift

Twice a week during the academic year excluding finals weeks, the dental hygiene team hits the road, bringing dental healthcare to the area’s underserved populations.

Invaluable education

Samuel was so invested in this project that she acquired CDL license to drive the mobile clinic. Each Monday and Wednesday, she gets behind the wheel as two students, one of six dentists who rotate duties, and interpreter Mariela Perez climb aboard.

On Mondays, they travel to Johnson County Developmental Supports (JCDS). They provide dental hygiene care, X-rays and exceptional patient education in additional to a dental examination.

But more than that, they learn how to communicate with and treat patients who have physical or developmental limitations. Some may be blind, deaf, nonverbal—or even all three.

Dental hygiene student Rikki Eckols recalls working on one middle-aged blind and deaf patient at JCDS.

“He had found a way to adapt,” she recalls, “and I had to change the way I communicate to meet him there.”

For example, he was highly sensitive to touch. Rikki worked with his interpreter to describe the sensations he would feel as she took his blood pressure, examined his mouth, and cleaned his teeth.

The experience tested her communication and empathy skills even more than her dental skills. She actually had made it fairly far into the exam before the patient indicated enough was enough.

“He made it very clear he was done with me,” Rikki says with an affectionate laugh. “No communication barrier there!”

On Wednesdays, OHOW alternates sites. One week the team cares for pregnant women in the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program at Johnson County Department of Health and Environment. Aside from cleaning, the students educate these future mothers about pregnancy risks associated with poor dental health.

The following week it heads to Center of Grace in Olathe, which offers English as a Second Language classes through JCCC. There the students learn to work with language interpreters while providing dental hygiene care to many people who’ve had limited or no dental care in their lifetimes.

Spanish-speaking students like Rikki could use their bilingual skills to communicate, however haltingly, directly with the patients.

“You see these patients’ eyes light up when they hear their own language,” Samuel says. Their fear shrinks a little, their comfort increases a bit more.”

Called to serve

Talk to students who complete the OHOW rotation and you’ll hear words like “rewarding,” “eye-opening,” “fulfilling” and “humbling.” They’ll say, “It built confidence in my abilities” or “I learned to be flexible and adaptable.”

Mostly, they’ll say caring for patients through OHOW strengthened their desire to help others, especially those who struggle to meet healthcare needs.

“We empower our graduates with experience to tackle difficult cases and use their professional practice opportunities to advance their careers,” Samuel says.

While the truck has held up well, 10 years of service is taking its toll. In October 2018, the program received approval from JCCC’s Board of Trustees to purchase a new vehicle and build a custom-sized garage for it. The new and improved OHOW will be equipped with updated technology and tools for the next wave of dental hygiene students.


Dental hygienists are in high demand. Think this career might be for you? Check out the dental hygiene admission requirements.

Johnson County also has a growing need for Spanish interpreters. Consider earning a health care interpreting certificate.