Many Pieces, One Clinic

Jill Nebeker examines the people and elements that came together to make the AIDS Network Dental Clinic a reality.

It is May 2010. Construction is underway at 600 Williamson Street. White, dusty shoeprints congregate at the entrance of the office. A “red carpet” of sorts runs down the hallway: brown butcher paper, taped to the floor, is dotted with more shoeprints. Five-gallon buckets, paint cans, and brushes stand at the ready. What was once a restaurant will now be home to the AIDS Network Dental Clinic, right next door to AIDS Network.

A dental clinic isn’t a new idea for AIDS Network. They know the research. Those with HIV and AIDS often fear stigma when telling a dentist about their status, so they don’t seek dental care. Those with HIV and AIDS who don’t receive dental care aren’t able to maintain proper nutrition and often get opportunistic oral infections. Then there’s the fact that oral health is predictive of overall health. A dental clinic is not a new idea for the clients at AIDS Network, either. Through feedback groups, they have expressed their desire for access to dental care in Madison. (Currently, some clients trek to AIDS Resource Center in Milwaukee.)

But several complex pieces—funding, designing, building, equipping, staffing, and managing—make up the puzzle of starting a dental clinic. In early 2010, the starter piece fell into place. Governor Doyle released the State of Wisconsin Capital Budget, which includes a grant to AIDS Network, to the tune of $300,000. Because of the contingencies of the grant, the AIDS Network needed to find a location, secure a lease, and start building in a hurry.

As AIDS Network considered several locations, Karen Dotson, Executive Director, heard the restaurant next door was closing, making that space available. They moved on it quickly. Having the clinic next door, as Board Vice-President Gerry Haney says, “was a no-brainer.” He goes on to say, “Transportation is an issue for some of our clients. In choosing a location, we didn’t want to add to that.” The location will be ideal not only for clients but also for AIDS Network, as the clinic will share a reception area with the current office.

According to Dotson, AIDS Network and the owner of The Gateway Building (the mixed-use plaza where AIDS Network leases office space) have a long-standing and very good relationship. The owner not only leased the space to them affordably but he also directed them to a builder and allowed them to store equipment in a vacant office space during construction. Dotson says, “He believes in our mission and wants to keep us as tenants.”

This kind of generosity has been common throughout the process of opening the clinic. Dr. James Mooney of Rhinelander, Wisconsin, a semi-retired dentist, donated dental chairs and other equipment. The company hired to move the dental equipment to Madison charged half their regular rate. The AIDS Network is lucky, too, in having Dr. Tamim Sifri, dentist and former Board member, on hand from the start. Dr. Sifri has provided guidance and advice on all things dental including the technical aspects of purchasing, installing, and maintaining equipment for three operatories. Haney says, “Dr. Sifri gave us insight along the way—or more like a reality check,” which he’ll continue to give after the clinic opens.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony will celebrate the clinic’s opening in July. Clients of AIDS Network will then be able to receive full-service dental care (minus dentures and surgery), provided by one dentist and one hygienist, both familiar with the needs of HIV-positive patients. Initially the dental clinic will be open one to two days a week, but AIDS Network intends to have the clinic open more hours. The goal is to enable AIDS Network clients to combine appointments so they can see their case worker and/or nutritionist, visit the food pantry, and get dental care in one visit.

Dotson is excited not only because the clinic is a now reality but for another reason well. AIDS Network is working with local dental providers, legislators (such as State Representative Mark Pocan), and others to expand the clinic to serve uninsured and under-insured people who are not AIDS Network clients. This venture—offering a full-scale health service to the community at large—would be a first of its kind for AIDS Network. Daunting? Maybe for some, but not for Dotson and AIDS Network.