New dental clinic serves skid row’s homeless
“If I have to give you a grade one to ten, ten being superb, you’re a three.”
“I’m a three?”
“Yes. Let me show you what I’m talking about. Hold up the mirror. The plaque is this. You see that?”
“OK, so if you do your brushing properly, you shouldn’t be able to see this, to scrape it. So that’s what causes cavities. That’s what causes gum disease. That’s what’s causing you to lose your teeth. So you’re fighting against that. The key is you brush and remove that.”
The patient receiving this lecture on dental hygiene could have been a neglectful adolescent in suburbia who spent too much time on Facebook to brush his teeth regularly. But this was a middle-aged man named Isum at the Los Angeles Catholic Worker’s new two-chair dental clinic on skid row.
And the dentist was Dr. Lucas Setiady, who has a practice in suburban Chino, but on this Friday morning was working alone in the spotless white office, using different instruments to meticulously clean Isum’s stained teeth and pointing out the beginning of serious gum degeneration in certain places.
After saying, “Rinse your mouth,” the 52-year-old dentist finished the job with a thorough flossing. “You can clean your teeth almost as good as I did. OK?”
“But the key is you’ve got to do it. If you don’t do it, nobody else is going to do it for you. Let me show you it in the mirror. You see this area? It has to be as clean as that when you brush. So the next time when I see you, I want to see clean teeth — no plaque.”
After a moment, Dr. Setiady, with a straight face and stern voice, added, “If it’s not clean, I won’t see you.”
The dentist chuckled. “I’m just joking. Any questions?”
Isum said, “I’m going to do it,” getting up from the dental chair and reaching out to shake hands.
“All right. Like I said, when I see you the next time, I want to see clean teeth.”
Dorothy Day’s legacy
The dental clinic is one of many ministries of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker community, which is part of the lay Catholic Worker movement founded in New York more than 70 years ago by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. Besides the clinic, the L.A. branch, started in 1970, today runs a soup kitchen, hospitality house for the homeless, hospice for the dying and a monthly newspaper, along with offering a “prophetic witness” in opposition to war-making and injustice.
The new clinic on East 6th Street and Gladys Avenue sits kitty-corner behind what’s known on the street as “The Hippie Kitchen” and its outdoor St. Francis Peace Garden with sturdy picnic tables. On the front wall is a row of big, bright tiled sunflowers. Inside is a small cluttered waiting room plus a counter that dispenses personal hygiene and healthcare items.
Last October, the new clinic replaced a bare-bones single-chair station with two modern dental operatory ones. The chairs are separated by blond cabinets that neatly allow a digital X-ray arm to swing from one side to the other, with the results showing up immediately on a laptop computer screen. The state-of-the-art facility was the result of generous volunteer contributions from contractor Ken Stack, Patterson Dental, Martin Landau, Virginia Santos, Maria Lopez and other donors.
Another major force behind the new dental clinic was Dr. Rich Meehan, who almost single-handedly staffed the old clinic for 18 years, and only stopped last year to care for his ailing wife Pat, who has Alzheimer’s Disease.
“It’s been like a phoenix,” said Dr. Meehan. “It was ashes when I left, I mean, as far as antiquity is concerned. We had old equipment and facilities. Now they don’t have to develop the X-rays and go through all that. They just pull it up on the screen. And then there’s the latest in sterilizing equipment. It’s just a remarkable transformation — Grade-A quality, up-to-date modern facility. A real rebirth.”
The retired 77-year-old dentist, who lives in Rancho Palos Verdes, admits he was “kind of proud” that the clinic is not only continuing, but is better than ever after being shut down for a few months for a complete remodeling. And he confides how he misses working on skid row, especially connecting with patients. But then he perks up, wanting to talk about how the whole experience with the local Catholic Workers radically changed his comfortable upper-middle-class life.
“At first it was like: ‘Well, I made a commitment, so I’ll carry it out,’” he pointed out. “And then I just grew to love it, you know. And through the Catholic Workers, who have given chunks of their lives to work with the poor, it kind of revived a sense of ‘Hey, this is what I should be doing, serving the poor.’ I mean, Jesus talks about the poor a lot, and it awakened me to a real fondness for the poor. And being able to help them was a sense of gratification for me. I felt like I was doing something worthwhile.
“So I really want to stay connected with the clinic to support it in any way I can, and always be connected with the Los Angeles Catholic Workers who have taught me so much,” he said. “I feel like I’m living the Gospel when I’m with them. Our pastor once said, ‘They don’t just walk the talk, they walk the walk.’ And to walk with them and see Christ in the poor is something I want to continue to do. It’s a source of inspiration, and it’s a source of service that I really feel I can give — and should give.”
Jeff Dietrich, who’s been a member of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker community for more than 40 years, confirms that Rich Meehan has a genuine love for the folks on skid row and a particular interest in serving the poorest of the poor living on the street. The seasoned activist, and recent author of “Broken and Shared: Food, Dignity, and the Poor on Los Angeles’ Skid Row,” says the dentist really “grew into” the Workers’ core belief that one meets Christ in each person who comes to their soup kitchen, hospitality house and other offerings.
The other thing that suited the dentist well for working on skid row was his intuitive sense of taking care of as many people as possible in the quickest and most painless way possible, according to the veteran Catholic Worker. He soon realized and accepted the limits of the grass-roots practice so he could address his top priority: relieve suffering.
When Dietrich, 65, is asked about what the new dental clinic means to their work, a knowing expression comes across his bushy-mustached face.
“It’s such a tremendous upgrade from the primitive MASH unit that we once had,” he said. “It’s a way of really treating the homeless of the street as if they were coming into a modern suburban dental office. The walls are clean and white. The tools are bright and shiny and brand new. We have digital X-rays. The dentists who are volunteering their time here right now are just so caring and loving.”
Dr. David Campbell also practices at the clinic. And Dr. Gayle Wood treats homeless patients from skid row at her Manhattan Beach office.
“So we are so delighted to be able to offer this really first-class dental clinic to the homeless poor of skid row,” Dietrich continued. “What a great gift it has been from so many people who have put all of their gifts and funds and resources into this humble project. I mean, people who come here now feel kind of honored just to be able to go into a place like this.
“And there’s nothing more important than dental care right now in view of all the government cutbacks,” he noted. “People can’t get free dentistry anymore. We even get referrals every week from social workers as well as the Veterans Administration. So we really could use more volunteer dentists now that we have this new modern dental clinic. In fact, we built the new facility so that today’s generation of dentists would feel comfortable practicing in it.”
‘Taking the torch’
Dr. Lucas Setiady says he’s honored just to continue the work of Dr. Meehan at the new dental clinic. “I guess it’s like a relay, taking the torch from him and continuing as long as I can do it,” said the Indonesian-born dentist, who came to the U.S. in 1983 to study at the University of Southern California’s dental school. He is also a graduate of the Las Vegas Institute for Advanced Dental Studies. “It’s admirable what he did here.”
He first learned about “a dentist” working on skid row from Father Paul Konig, a Discalced Carmelite priest at his parish, St. Therese in Alhambra. Father Konig’s parents were heavily involved with the Los Angeles Catholic Worker as volunteers. Then he read an article in The Tidings about how the dentist was retiring after volunteering weekly for 18 years. He’d wanted to do some kind of charity work for a long time and was inspired by his fellow dentist’s steadfast dedication to serve the homeless poor.
“I think every person is born with this good quality in them. It’s God’s gift,” he explained. “It’s just a matter, can you bring it out? I think everybody has their own timing when you’re answering to your ‘calling.’ And mine happened to be when I’m 52.”
Dr. Setiady admits to at first being somewhat apprehensive about working on L.A.’s skid row, which has been called “the homeless capital” of the United States with some 10,000 folks living there. But he soon learned how the homeless aren’t that different from everyone else. And he treats them — stressing the number one oral hygiene lesson of brushing daily to remove plaque — basically the same as he does his paying patients in Chino.
“What I’m doing here is similar to my private practice, but I’m working at a slower pace because I’m working by myself most of the time,” reported the father of two children. “And it’s a different way of practicing dentistry, ’cause you’re limited to what is needed most: fillings, extractions and cleanings.
“But the way I see it is we’re still giving these people good service,” he said. “Most people on skid row will probably wind up losing all of their teeth. So if you’re able to meet their basic needs of saving as many teeth as possible and helping them be free from painful toothaches, you’ve accomplished a lot.”