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The Giving Hand Foundation

Jan. 1, 2003
Sandy arrives in a wheelchair promptly at 9 a.m. Her husband carefully pushes her chair up the new handicap ramp and into the first operatory of the newly opened Wyo Dental clinic.

By Keith Phillips, DDS & Kim Phillips, RN, MSN, PhD

Sandy arrives in a wheelchair promptly at 9 a.m. Her husband carefully pushes her chair up the new handicap ramp and into the first operatory of the newly opened Wyo Dental clinic. Her wide, expectant smile reveals the darker side of the story of her last two years.

Even before the automobile accident that nearly ended her life and confined her to a wheelchair, times were hard. Her husband was laid off from the local textile plant after seven years on the job — another victim of a slowing economy.

With no formal education beyond high school, Sandy had been making minimum wage at the local diner to help make ends meet. Simply providing food and clothing for their two young children was becoming increasingly difficult. Money for dental care was not available.

Then the accident happened, and Sandy's life was changed forever. The medical bills from the accident were staggering. The costs for saving Sandy's life were staggering. Caring for her teeth fell far down on the list of needs.

After visiting the office of a local dentist who was sympathetic and offered to reduce his fees to the level of his costs (35 percent), Sandy and her husband still found that the expense to get rid of the raging periodontal disease, the necessary extractions, and the badly needed fillings was far more than they could afford. Dejected and spirits sinking, Sandy and her husband had virtually resigned themselves to years of pain leading to the ultimate loss of all of their teeth. They were trying desperately to find enough money to get dentures from an "economy" denture mill.

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But good news was on the horizon for Sandy and her husband. An article in the local paper attracted some attention when it spoke of a new, free dental clinic being opened in their area by the Giving Hand Foundation.

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The Wyo Dental Clinic was established in response to an overwhelming need for dental services in a rural, largely agricultural community in a sluggish economy. The clinic — created through donations from the local community from the physical structure itself to equipment and supplies to labor — was designed to be self-supporting. Patients are asked to give donations as they are able. Sandy, the clinic's first patient, is currently having her dental needs met.

So, how can one dentist who is in private practice, with a family and all of the other obligations of a busy life, manage to create a nonprofit foundation with the mission of establishing free dental clinics here and around the world? Moreover, why would he want to take on such an enormous responsibility?

The answers come from a story that has evolved like the pieces of a puzzle. Throughout life, people influence growth in many ways. As a child, the seed for "giving back" was planted when I accompanied my dad, Dr. Ken Phillips, many times to a free clinic in the North Carolina mountains.

When I was accepted to dental school, my grandmother challenged me to "never forget all those people who can't afford the services you have to offer." After a few years in practice, I became a student at the L.D. Pankey Institute, where the motto was: Quid Pro Quo, which translates to "One thing for another" or "To whom much is given, much is expected."

In dentistry, there are often a number of options for treating a patient's needs. I discovered that the value placed on quality restorative dentistry varies from person to person and is not solely dependent upon their ability to pay. Many people want and value optimal care, though many cannot afford that care. I began to realize that the more financially successful a dentist is, the more charitable he can afford to be with regard to treating those patients who value quality care, but simply cannot afford it.

As I began offering more free services in my practice, I also began to dream of a more comprehensive way of providing free dentistry to the underserved. About 10 years ago, I served for a week in a church-sponsored dental clinic in Montego Bay, Jamaica. That experience, as the first dentist in 10 years in that clinic, so strongly affected my view of service that I have returned nearly every year since to continue the work.

The clinic in Montego Bay was the first of the three free clinics established through the Giving Hand Foundation. Residents in the Advanced Education in General Dentistry Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, general dentists in private practice, oral surgeons, physicians, nurses, hygienists, dental assistants, and support personnel from many walks of life have traveled to Jamaica during the last 10 years to serve in the Montego Bay area. Though the goal of this service is "giving back," the givers find that they receive more than they feel they have given.

The second free clinic grew out of a friendship I developed with a minister of an Hispanic church in a local community. This church helps Hispanic immigrants assimilate into the United States. Most of the people are poor; English is not their primary language, if they speak English at all. The clinic is in the basement of the church and operates on Sunday afternoons once or twice a month to best suit the work needs of its clients. Most of the clinic's patients have emergency-care needs due to decay, though hygiene services and some restorative care are given.

After starting these two clinics, an interesting chain of events occurred in my personal life. My 12-year-old daughter, Amy, was diagnosed with Type I diabetes. Because her diagnosis was so new and her medical needs so great, my wife Kim stayed with Amy when I took 14-year-old Leslie to an American Academy of Dental Practice Administration meeting in San Antonio, Texas. Leslie, the only child in a group of about 500 attendees, sat on the front row at every meeting and established a rapport with every speaker. Thanks to the relationships Leslie developed with the speakers, two of them, Nido Qubein and Rev. Robert Shuler, suggested that I establish a nonprofit foundation to fund the establishment and maintenance of these clinics. A couple of years earlier, Dr. Art Dugoni in California had made a similar suggestion. And so the concept for the Giving Hand Foundation was born.

Our group has nonprofit status with three primary mission areas:
1.New dental and medical free clinics, primarily in churches, nursing homes, orphanages, and other facilities that have a tradition of service to the needy
2. Educational grants to promising needy students who are interested in the health-care profession
3. Funding of world-mission efforts with an emphasis on providing supplies and assisting with travel and support for those individuals willing to volunteer for mission work, but who are unable to fund themselves

For Sandy, our first patient who was bound to a wheelchair, her story had a happy ending. Her dental needs, predominantly periodontal and simple restorative, will be corrected after only a couple of additional appointments. Because of the clinics established through the Giving Hand Foundation, there will be many other happy endings.

The real reward, though, in giving back is to the giver. Giving one procedure, one hour, one day in the name of service — without expectation of payment — provides immeasurable benefit and payback to the provider.

We want to hear your stories. Tell us how you give back to the community. Tell us your plans and your successes. Share your gems so that we can better use our skills to serve those around us.

Dr. Keith Phillips maintains a private practice in Winston-Salem, N.C. He is president and founder of The Giving Hand Foundation, a nonprofit organization committed to the start-up and development of free medical and dental clinics. Dr. Phillips also serves as a teaching associate at the L.D. Pankey Institute and is on the faculty of the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry. Dr. Kim Phillips is a research associate in the Department of Public Health Sciences Section on Epidemiology at Wake Forest University Health Sciences in Winston-Salem, N.C. In addition to teaching, she is a project manager for cancer-control and cancer-prevention research projects, primarily in colorectal cancer. Dr. Phillips is vice president of the Giving Hand Foundation.

Dr. A. Keith Phillips will be speaking at the 2003 Thomas P. Hinman Dental Meeting, March 20-22, 2003. Dr. Phillips will present "Defining YOUR Practice," "Don't Let the Seeds Keep You From Enjoying the Watermelon," and "Finding the Hidden Productivity in Your Dental Practice."

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