When Ohio's Elderly Can't Get to a Dentist, Michael Walcutt Brings the Dentist to Them

updated 03/24/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/24/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

Businessman Michael Walcutt of Columbus, Ohio is only 36, but he has already acquired a profound understanding of the burdens of aging in America. His grandparents, Lester and Hattie Walcutt, were confined to wheelchairs and spent their last years in a nursing home. As with many such facilities, there was no dental equipment on the premises. "The only way to get them to a dentist was by ambulance, costing $80-$100 one-way," Walcutt says. In practical terms, the elder Walcutts were forced to make do without any form of dental care.

"My grandmother had no teeth; she wouldn't wear her dentures because they hurt," says Walcutt. "That meant she couldn't eat properly so she got gum sores. It was pure hell for her. She suffered until she died, and that just didn't seem fair."

Cases similar to Hattie Walcutt's are hardly uncommon. A survey three years ago by the American Dental Association found that, among the million-plus Americans housed in nursing homes, 60 percent had immediate dental needs and most had not seen a dentist in six years and wore dentures more than 10 years old. "Growing elderly in this country is difficult enough without adding one more indignity," says Walcutt. "I figured there just had to be a better way."

In 1983 Walcutt launched Mobile Care Corp. He started with a 25-foot Dodge van, furnished it with dental equipment and then recruited dentists who were willing to work in a clinic-on-wheels. In short, Walcutt decided that if nursing-home residents could not get to a dentist, he would bring a fully equipped dental office to them.

Today Mobile Care's white van regularly makes its rounds among more than 100 nursing homes in Ohio. It usually spends a full day at each place, treating 30 to 40 people. For patients, the coming of the dentist is not a day to dread but a promise of relief. "This is wonderful, just wonderful," Mary Ruther, 74, says repeatedly as she is wheeled up a ramp into the dental van. There she is greeted by Dr. David Blank and his assistant, Marilyn Freshour. "My teeth hurt so bad," says Ruther, who suffers from leukemia. "I can't even remember the last time I saw a dentist."

Blank, 30, one of five dentists under contract with Mobile Care, earns about $100 for one day's work, significantly less than he might make in private practice. But that is his choice. "I worked in a clinic before this; it was stressful, and I had no impact on my patients," he says. "Now, I don't have to worry about overhead and paying bills, and I get a tremendous sense of satisfaction. Many of the elderly have no friends or family, so I really mean something to them. I feel I do more good here than working in an office putting braces on kids."

Every dental applicant to Mobile Care is screened by Dr. J. Wendell Lotz, who formerly taught at Ohio State and is a past president of the American Society for Geriatric Dentistry. "We provide a first-rate service," says Walcutt from his office in the Columbus suburb of Worthington. Married and the father of a teenage daughter, Walcutt abandoned his job as an executive in a family owned oil and gas distributorship to start Mobile Care. "I've never taken a salary from this business," he says. "We're just starting to make a little money."

To fill a rapidly expanding demand, Mobile Care is taking delivery of 15 new $295,000 trailers, equipped to serve not only as dental labs but as podiatry, audiology and optometry clinics as well. Walcutt also is considering launching Mobile Care in New York, New Jersey, Texas, California, Florida and Pennsylvania, all states with high nursing-home populations.

"It's easy to make money in this country," he claims. "I made tons of it in oil, but I probably won't with Mobile Care." Still, there are other rewards. Walking through the Manor Care Nursing Center in Westerville, he greets Kevin, a man in his mid 50s suffering from cerebral palsy. Kevin points to his own mouth and smiles. "It doesn't hurt anymore," he says.

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