By Louise Knott Ahern
For more than 15 years, the man had hidden behind a long mustache and beard, keeping his smiles small and his voice quiet. Ashamed to let anyone see that he was missing all of his front teeth, the Army veteran slowly became a different person. He withdrew from friends and family. He would sit silently while others laughed around him, reluctant to join in conversation because he didn’t want anyone to hear the way he hissed on every “s.”
Then, he discovered Just Health 510. The nonprofit dental clinic in Oakland, California, was founded by two Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry alumni last year and offers a range of free services, from basic cleanings to dentures.
“This gentleman was in his 60s. He’d been this way for too long,” said Dr. Daniel Nam ’02, president of Just Health 510. “We were able to take out his remaining back teeth and make him a full set of upper and lower dentures that fit properly.” The results were instantaneous.
“The day we delivered the dentures, he couldn’t believe it when he saw himself in the mirror,” Nam recalled. “He looked 20 years younger. And when he talked, he could not believe how he sounded. He grabbed my hand and kept thanking all of us profusely. We were all in tears.”
Success stories like that are why Nam and fellow Dugoni School of Dentistry graduate, Dr. Brian Hathcoat ’12, decided to open Just Health 510, even as they continue to work in their own practices every day.
“Our ability to help folks get themselves back on their feet is rewarding,” Nam said. “I would do this all day long.”
Nam and Hathcoat met at the Berkeley Free Clinic—a health clinic that opened in 1969 and relies largely on volunteer student doctors for medical services. Though dental care is offered, it’s on a lottery basis only and is limited to emergency services such as extractions.
Nam had been volunteering at the Berkeley Free Clinic for more than a decade and had risen to its director of dental services when Hathcoat started there. The two men quickly became friends, bonded not only as fellow Dugoni School alumni but also by a shared passion for service.
And like so many good ideas, Just Health 510 was born from a simple conversation among friends that began with an even simpler question: What if?
A Better Way
“There had to be a better way,” Hathcoat said. What if they could expand on all the good aspects of the Berkeley Free Clinic—the free services, the volunteer doctors—and provide a full-service, day-time dental clinic for people who could not afford dental care? What if they could find a way to ensure that those people had access to comprehensive dental services—not just emergency care?
“There are community clinics around, but they provide very basic-level care,” Hathcoat said. “There is a population of people who can’t afford dental care; who can’t afford insurance. As cavities or other problems occur, they don’t have the money to get treated, which can lead to broken smiles or self-confidence issues. It can affect them overall—the ability to eat, to smile.”
[pullquote]And like so many good ideas, Just Health 510 was born from a simple conversation among friends that began with an even simpler question: What if?[/pullquote]
As it turned out, Nam had the same idea. The two Dugoni School graduates hopped on a plane to Phoenix to check out a program called A Brighter Way, a series of free dental clinics for underserved communities. Founded by Dr. Kris Volchek, the program began in 1999 as a clinic for homeless adults but grew into three separate programs over the next 15 years. A Brighter Way’s philosophy became the model for Just Health 510. Like A Brighter Way, Just Health 510 is designed to target vulnerable communities and offers more than just emergency dental care. Nam and Hathcoat hope to expand in the future to serve more people and provide more services.
“The end goal is to create a showcase facility that will attract providers, dentists and volunteers,” Hathcoat said. “We want to provide a whole range of services, including implants and crowns, along with routine dentistry.”
Like A Brighter Way, the overall goal is to empower patients to lead healthy lives through proper oral health care. To accomplish their goals, Just Health 510 has enlisted the support of 10 dedicated individuals on their board of directors, including two other Dugoni School alumni: Drs. Ashley Cheng ’16 and Akhil Reddy ’08.
“We want to break down the barriers to achieve high-quality dental care,” said Dr. Ashley Cheng ’16, chief of operations for Just Health 510 who recently completed an MPH program at Harvard. “I am proud to be part of an organization focused on health equity, which means everyone has the opportunity to attain his or her highest level of health.”
Another similarity to A Brighter Way? A focus on veterans.
Just Health 510 currently serves three primary groups of patients. First, they inherited an existing patient base from Dr. Cote Reese, a retired Oakland dentist who has allowed Just Health 510 to operate out of his practice in Oakland. Second, the clinic works with elderly patients in assisted living facilities who can’t afford dental care. The third group is veterans.
“If you are a veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces but you are not a high-ranking general or a prisoner of war or someone with a 100 percent disability, you get nothing in the way of dental coverage,” said Nam. “To me it’s a travesty and shame on all of us, that we are allowing this to happen.”
Their focus on veterans happened almost by accident. Hathcoat was asked last year to volunteer at Stand Down, an event where homeless and at-risk veterans can receive services such as housing and legal assistance, basic health care or even a haircut. Hathcoat served roughly 20 patients that weekend with some emergency dental issues, but referred a few to Just Health 510 for follow-up.
He and Nam realized they could fill the gap on a regular basis. “We can’t turn our backs on these folks,” Nam proclaimed.
A Desire to Give Back
That drive to give back to the community was one of the most important qualifications Nam and Hathcoat looked for when they approached other dentists to serve on their board of directors.
For Nam, it’s a drive that was nurtured throughout his life by his parents. “My immigrant parents never let me not dream or not hope,” he said. But it’s also a philosophy that was nurtured at the Dugoni School of Dentistry.
“What is different about our school is that in the words of Dr. Dugoni, ‘You’re a friend, and I’m going to train you to become a dentist.’ We do it in a loving, positive way,” said Nam. “It’s no coincidence that the four dentists on the board are from Pacific. It’s really fun when you have great clinicians who have big hearts. You put all that together, and you can do magical things.”
Hathcoat said it goes back to a simple principle. “To me, it’s basic community care,” he said, “that we take care of each other.”
“At the Dugoni School of Dentistry, our purpose is to help people lead healthy lives,” said Dean Nader Nadershahi ’94. “We are so proud of the work being done by our alumni leaders in organizations such as Just Health 510 to provide critical oral health care to those in need. We know that good oral health leads to good overall health and these efforts are helping everyone in our community lead healthier lives.”
“We’re excited and want to grow,” said Nam. “We’re looking for serious, committed folks.” If you would like to contribute to Just Health 510 or are interested in volunteering your services, please email email@example.com.
Louise Knott Ahern, BA, is an award-winning journalist, fiction writer, editor and writing coach, and is the founder of LKA Publishing.
At a Glance
Just Health 510 is a non-profit dental clinic in Oakland offering free dental services for underserved communities. Founders Drs. Daniel Nam ’02 and Brian Hathcoat ’12 met while volunteering at the Berkeley Free Clinic.
The Board of Directors includes two other Dugoni School alumni: Drs. Ashley Cheng ’16 and Akhil Reddy ’08.
The clinic provides free services on Thursdays and Fridays, but the organization hopes to expand to five days a week.
For more information, visit JustHealth510.org.