LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Grant Hardesty, 28, of Greensboro, N.C., joined the inaugural class at the LECOM School of Dental Medicine to learn how to help people with the often painful things that can go wrong inside the damp, dark confines of the mouth.
But until last week, his learning did not include live patients.
Now, Hardesty and the other 99 LECOM dental students are working with low-income patients who might not be able to afford the cost of getting their mouth in tip-top shape.
Referred by the Manatee Community Coalition on Homelessness, 30 people are being fitted with quality dentures, free of charge.
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It's a benefit not only to the patient, but to the students who aspire to be dentists.
"I am getting used to working with patients," Hardesty said.
Working under the supervision of faculty members, the students begin to see first-hand the relevance of what they have been learning in class.
To launch the denture program, LECOM donated $10,000 in denture services, said spokesman Michael Polin.
Students saw 10 patients a day, some with no teeth, and some who come with dentures that are worn, broken or ill-fitting.
This week, students were doing exams and collecting impressions of mouths. The patients should have their dentures in March.
"The fees are low, but we are slow" in a learning environment, said Dr. Francis M. Curd, assistant dean of clinical education at LECOM.
In June, LECOM will start a second denture clinic for about 50 patients. After screenings and fittings, patients will receive a full set of dentures for about $668, Curd said.
That's still quite a savings over what a private practice might charge, say LECOM officials.
Adell Erozer, executive director of the Bill Galvano One Stop Center in Bradenton, said she is happy to see another resource available to help low-income people with their healthcare.
The One Stop Center, with Dr. Jim Little and Dr. Frank Spino, already offer dental care, including providing dentures.
"We actually do the whole thing," Erozer said.
But having another community resource "opens up the schedule so that other people can get those services," Erozer said. "It's wonderful."
The dental college, built at a cost of $52 million, has already been receiving calls about more comprehensive dental care. That will be available to the public in March 2014, Polin said.
The first class of LECOM dental students will graduate in 2016. They will spend their first three years at the Lakewood Ranch campus. On their fourth and final year, half the class will go to Erie, Pa., and half will go to DeFuniak Springs in the Florida Panhandle to provide dental outreach.
For the patients receiving dentures, it can be a life-changing experience, Curd said.
"They can eat, chew their food so they don't have to swallow it whole, and smile," Curd said.
For more information about the denture clinic or comprehensive care at LECOM, call 941-405-16oo.
For more information about Manatee Community Coalition on Homelessness, call 941- 747-1509.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 941-745-7021 or tweet @jajones1