PINELLAS PARK — Wide-eyed with his mouth gaping open, 6-year-old Walter Jennings gazed up at Dr. Haychell Saraydar as she used a dental explorer to count his teeth.
She moved the long, silver implement quickly over each tooth. She looked closely and realized he'd need sealant on some of his teeth to prevent further decay — there was already a cavity he'd need filled.
His father, also Walter Jennings, sat in the waiting room at the Florida Department of Health's Pinellas Park clinic. Jennings, 44, had struggled to find a dentist for his son that he trusted — and one that accepted his insurance.
"It's impossible," he said. "You get insurance, you go to the dentist and then you find out they're not in your network."
Dozens of parents who packed into the same waiting room with their children had faced similar dilemmas. Some didn't have dental insurance and wouldn't be able to come up with the money to have their children's teeth cleaned, fixed or X-rayed. Others with Medicaid said they're up against a shortage of providers and long waiting lists.
That's why Saraydar said the clinic steps in every year before school starts to offer one day of free dental care. From 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, the clinic's dentists treated 54 Pinellas County children.
"We do the best we can, but there's still more need of providers in the private sector," Saraydar said. "This event is to increase awareness, so parents know we're here to help them out whether they have insurance or not."
Nationally, about 42 percent of pediatric dentists participate in Medicaid, according to the American Dental Association. In Florida, only about 30 percent of dentists participate.
In 2013, the ADA reported, only 14 percent of children on Medicaid received tooth sealant on permanent molars. Only 10 percent of Florida children on Medicaid received sealant.
It's a problem, because dental pain can keep kids out of school, Saraydar said, and the issues will likely compound and follow children into adulthood if they go untreated.
More than half of the Pinellas school district's nearly 104,000 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Most of those students also qualify for Medicaid, said district spokeswoman Lisa Wolf. The district promoted the free clinic on its website, for parents who need help getting their children dental care.
"We care about the student as a whole," Wolf said. And it's tough for a child with a toothache to concentrate in school.
Adrianna Jones, 25, arrived at the clinic from St. Petersburg at 8:01 a.m. with her daughter A'aliya, 5, and godson Jairius, 4. There was already a massive line.
By 9:30 a.m. the kids were getting antsy, but excited to get their teeth cleaned for the first time. Jones said despite the wait, she wouldn't be leaving. She's seen the shortage of providers firsthand. When she tried to make an appointment for her daughter with a dentist that accepted her insurance, she said the office told her they wouldn't be able to fit her in until October, and they only see children on Thursdays.
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"I'll stay and wait," she said Saturday. "I'm not going to be able to find someone else."
Saraydar and her team cleaned dozens of mouths, filled several cavities and put many parents at ease as children cycled through the clinic's four purple dental chairs. Some screamed and cried as they got cavities filled. Some screamed and cried even before they sat down.
It is the dentist's office, after all.
Others, like Walter, kept their cool once a team of dentists got to work on filling a molar and polishing their teeth.
(As far as handling the dentist goes, Walter was a rock star.)
When Walter was done, his dad held his son's face softly in his hands. The boy looked up smiling at his father. "We'll have to make sure we get those back molars better when we brush from now on," Jennings told him.
The boy nodded. "Can we get breakfast now?" he asked.
He wanted to eat pancakes with his new smile.
Contact Sara DiNatale at email@example.com or (727) 893-8862. Follow @sara_dinatale.