Her blue eyes twinkling brightly under the spotlight of the dentist’s chair, Sherri Depa’s cheeks turned a bright pink as Dr. Jennifer Farrell asks her about her Valentine’s Day plans.
“Are you going to the dance with Albert?” her sister, Tracy, asks.
Sherri giggles and twists away in the big chair, hiding her face as she turns a deeper red.
“Who’s Albert?” Dr. Farrell wanted to know. “Is he your boyfriend? You’re going to have to show him your beautiful smile.”
Sherri, 49, turns back and smiles at Dr. Farrell, showing off her newly cleaned teeth. She’s one of 2,000 patients with developmental disabilities—such as Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism and seizure disorders—that will be seen this year at the Dental Center at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago. Sherri has been getting her teeth and gums taken care of through the center’s Special Patient Dental Care Program for more than 40 years.
“One of Sherri’s teachers told me about the program when she was about 7 or 8-years-old,” says Dawn Depa, Sherri’s mother. “She’d been through a lot of dentists and I was very grateful to find it. I was a young widow with seven kids and couldn’t afford much. Finding the program was a real blessing.”
Right from the start, Dawn says she could see and appreciate the extra care and attention the dentists with the program gave to Sherri, who had been diagnosed with cerebral dwarfism as a baby.
Just a year or two after starting seeing the dentists through the program, Sherri had a cap on a bottom tooth, but kept knocking it off, bringing her back to the Dental Center. On one visit, Sherri wouldn’t sit still, causing the dentist—a young resident, Dawn remembers—a great deal of difficulty getting the cap placed back on the tooth.
“Sherri was just about 10-years-old. I remember the dentist sat down in a bean bag chair and sat Sherri in his lap. He played with her and coaxed her until he was able to get the cap back on,” Dawn says. “That’s the type of special care they’ve given Sherri her whole life.”
Through the years, Dawn says the dentists, especially Dr. Farrell, have gotten to know Sherri’s personality, comforting her, coaxing her and knowing what may frighten her, such as the sight or even mention of blood.
Because of her developmental challenges, Sherri has required a lot more compassion and common sense than the average patient, Dawn says. According to Dr. Farrell, director of the program, this is very common among their special patients.
“When many of our patients come to us for the first time, they may not have seen a dentist for 10 to 15 years,” Dr. Farrell says. “Most dental practices are afraid to take on patients with special needs, so there’s a high demand for the service. Unfortunately, many parents and caregivers just don’t know where to go.”
She says the Special Patient Dental Care Program has been in place at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center since the 1970s and she’s been with the program for the past 19 years. Patients come from as far as Maryland for treatment through the unique program, funded by the Grottoes of North America and the Illinois Department of Public Health, which offers services such as IV sedation to help calm its special needs patients for proper treatment. Dr. Farrell says the patients are “fantastic” and she’s developed long-standing relationships with many, including Sherri.
Dr. Farrell says she can’t imagine doing anything else.
As she wraps up with Sherri, who has earned the nickname “Hickory” in her family for being a bit of a ham, Dr. Farrell tells her she’ll see her soon and, as with any patient, to be sure to brush and floss after every meal. As Sherri accepts her red toothbrush, she gives Dr. Farrell a big hug.
Dr. Farrell hugs her back, saying she wants to hear how the dance with Albert goes on her next visit.
To learn more about the Special Patient Dental Care Program, click here.