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Big hearted Issaquah dentists, doctors provide care for the homeless

Issaquah Reporter Editor
Mar 23 2010

"Whatever houses I may visit, I will come for the benefit of the sick, remaining free of all intentional injustice."

So reads the Hippocratic Oath, the vow taken by doctors before they enter into practice.

As all around them the effort to provide better health care for uninsured and underinsured Americans is hijacked by insurance companies and political scaremongering, a group of local medical professionals has given us a timely reminder of the core tenets of this oath.

On Saturday, March 13, a group of dentists, doctors and support staff from Issaquah, Sammamish, and neighboring cities, donated their time and expenses to treating dozens of homeless men and women, currently residents of Tent City 4 in Issaquah.

Dentist Jeffrey Zent and family doctor Sigrid Barnickel, who work side by side in an office park on Southeast 64th Place in North Issaquah, worked from 9 a.m. until late in the afternoon treating patients. Some came for general checkups and teeth cleanings, others to finally receive treatment for serious illnesses which they had been unable to have tended to outside of emergency hospital facilities and without accruing debts beyond their means.

According to John Milne, an emergency room physician at Swedish Hospital in Issaquah, forcing uninsured people to wait until health problems become serious conditions and treating them as emergencies is crippling not only the health of these Americans but also the country's health care system.

But for many, there aren't any other options.

In between patients, Dr. Zent told The Reporter he was heartened by the response of his fellow professionals to the idea of a day of free treatment for the Tent City residents.

"There are dentists, hygienists, office staff, from all over," he said. "I put the word out about what we were doing today, and it was great to see how eager people were to help."

All day, Zent's office was a blur of activity, as the dental workers did all they could to accommodate and treat the homeless men and women, many of whom didn't have medical records. Some of the men and women had teeth pulled, caps made, and fillings filled. Though it is rare to find someone who likes a visit to the dentist, the generosity of the doctors' gesture was not lost on the Tent City residents.

"I'd been putting this off for a long time," said one man, the gauze pads stuffed into his cheeks not enough to obscure an appreciative smile. "They were so nice in there. Man, that's a great thing for them to do."

The event was coordinated in part by Susan Evans of the Sammamish-based International Smile Power, a partnership of doctors and health professionals which holds clinics like this one all around the world to provide permanent solutions to some of the dental health problems in isolated and underserved regions, like Bolivia and Uganda. But as many of these groups are finding out, some of the most pressing health needs are right here at home.

In an office a few feet away, Dr. Barnickel and fellow general practitioner Gina Landicho-Wicks from Redmond, saw more than a dozen patients. As their front office staff worked frantically to make sure everyone who wanted medical care received it, the two doctors treated their homeless patients to what was their first medical attention in many years.

"Some of the men and women had chronic pain issues, some had diabetes. There were a few cases of problems with their lungs and breathing," Dr. Barnickel said. Her support staff vigilantly explained prescription procedures and options for insurance to the patients whose treatment will depend on their ability to pay for medicines. In many cases, Tent City organizing volunteers paid for prescriptions at a nearby pharmacy. But this is a short term solution to a long term problem.

Dr. Barnickel, who only a few weeks before had been volunteering in Haiti, treating children who had been badly injured in January's earthquake, is fully aware of the massive gap in services for uninsured Americans. Inspired by the experience of helping both desperate Haitians and homeless people here in Issaquah, she hopes to do more.

"What would be great is to have a permanent Tent City doctor, someone who follows up with patients and provides more regular care," she said. "That might be something to look into."

Tent City organizer Steve Burk was one of a team of local volunteers who drove patients back and forth from Tent City to the doctor's offices.

He, too, was moved by the generosity of the medical team, and the immediate impact it had on those for whom such treatment is little more than a wish.

"The residents were more than appreciative. On the way back they were continually thanking me and thanking the many wonderful people involved at the clinic," he wrote to volunteers the following day. "I was told several times they were the best and nicest dentists they had been to. I think the residents we really blown away by the generosity the doctors and the clinic. Big smiles, great support and wonderful care. I saw and heard some amazing things taking place."

Said Tent City organizer Paul Winterstein, the energy of people like Dr. Barnickel, Dr. Zent and Dr. Landicho-Wicks to help whenever they can is a continual inspiration.

"The bottom line is they genuinely care about people," he said. "When the opportunity comes to help someone in need, they put their hand up. And in some cases it's a desperate need."

Winterstein said that, although Saturday's event did link in many ways to the bigger issue of homelessness and social justice, it was gratifying to see that with local involvement, positive and immediate steps could be taken.

"Sure, this gets us thinking about the bigger problems with our health system, our laws and judicial systems, the problems with our provision of mental health," he said. "There's a lot of cultural, social things. There's alcohol and drug abuse, and parental abuse. And, I'll admit, not everyone who is homeless deserves a massive amount of empathy or sympathy. But there are many who do."

And for the many who do, we are thankful that these doctors and health professionals remember their oath... "whatever houses I may visit, I will come for the benefit of the sick."

Issaquah Reporter Editor Jake Lynch can be reached at