Cover Story: The Tooth Fairy

McMicken Dental helps improve Over-the-Rhine one smile at a time

Jared M. Holder

Dr. Judith Allen enjoys a conversation with one of her patients in the McMicken Dental Center office.

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Judith Allen D.D.S. works in an old rundown paint factory on McMicken Street in Over-the-Rhine. She makes significantly less money than most other dentists, works in a bad part of town and literally gives her services away.

Allen fixes the teeth of Cincinnati's homeless.

The move from a New Jersey suburb to a deteriorating neighborhood like Over-the-Rhine was a shock, but the office space was free.

"My family used to be afraid of me coming down here," Allen says of her business, McMicken Dental Center. "But we feel safe here now."

She also says her dental office location is much more convenient for her patients, since they're close to many local shelters, including the Joseph House only a few blocks away.

"When they told me there was an opening with the homeless here in Cincinnati, I thought, 'That's perfect for me," she says.

Allen first came to Cincinnati in 1999 after selling her private practice because her husband had found a new job. She'd already had a gratifying experience in public health care while she was living in Boston and attending dental school.

Afraid that her husband's job might move again, Allen looked online for a career in the public health care system in Cincinnati, saw the dental office availability and applied.

Allen's office is part of a network of health care services designed to help Cincinnati's homeless. All of the dental work is completely free to patients, with no strings attached. But she does require that any laboratory work, such as dentures, be covered by the patient.

"The hardest part of my work is telling some of my patients that, although our work is free here, dentures and partials cost money," Allen says. "And even thought it's a small bill, sometimes it's too much for the patient to afford."

To combat this adversity, organizations such as Goodwill sometimes help cover the costs of a patient's lab bill.

McMicken Dental doesn't just affect the cosmetics of a smile or the pain in someone's mouth, it affects the lives of many of its patients.

Bob McGonagle was one of Allen's first patients.

"He was very embarrassed about his smile," Allen says.

McGonagle was so moved by Allen's services that he told her he'd volunteer to do janitorial work at the office. He's provided McMicken Dental with janitorial service since 2001 that Allen says equals nearly $180,000.

"I needed some dental work done a few years ago, and she said, 'Oh my God, you need some teeth so you can eat," says Jarvis Baber, a current patient.

Baber, a former resident of a Mount Airy shelter, says the clinic's work is a "blessing."

"A lot of people here are taking advantage of getting their teeth fixed," Baber says. "Your teeth are important."

Allen gives back to her community in a way that few others can and says she finds her work rewarding — more rewarding than owning a private practice.

"I get to give people back a smile that haven't smiled in years," she says. ©

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