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Can A Toothache Kill You?

The Story of Deamonte Driver and His Dental Abscess

Deamonte Driver was 12 years old when he passed away in 2007. “He kept complaining of a headache,” said Alyce Driver, his mother. The usually energetic boy came home from school not feeling well. This prompted his grandmother to bring him to Southern Maryland Hospital Center. The twelve-year-old boy was provided medicines for his headache, sinusitis, and a dental abscess.

Deamonte went back to school the next day, Thursday, but by Friday, he could not talk. Alyce took her son to the Prince George’s County Hospital Center. There, he had a spinal tap and a CT scan. The doctor diagnosed him with meningitis.

There was an infection on the left side of Deamonte’s brain, and a bone must be removed. His family rushed him to the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington DC for an emergency brain surgery. But the infection came back.

The twelve-year-old boy started having seizures on Saturday that doctors called for another brain surgery. He went in again. This time, his molar on the upper left side of his mouth which was infected and damaged was removed.
The Prince George’s County boy suffered an abscessed tooth that did not receive immediate attention. The bacteria from the abscess traveled to his brain and led him to fight for his life that February 2007.

After a couple of days, they moved him to the Hospital for Sick Children. He spent more than six weeks there for physical and occupational therapy. In those weeks, he did schoolwork. His family and teachers from school visited him. He played cards and watched television shows with his mother.

He was happy, said Alyce, but Deamonte’s eyes were weak. His complexion got darker. He refused to take his meals by Saturday, February 24.

On Sunday, February 25, Deamonte passed away. “My baby was gone,” Alyce said.

The Status of Oral Health in the United States

Nearly all oral-related diseases are preventable. Dentistry has boasted advancements in its care and technologies throughout the years. In 2014, over 66 percent of the United States population was receiving fluoridated water.
But, figures continue to present dangerous conditions when it comes to oral health.

By the age of 34, more than 80 percent of the population has had at least a cavity, while four to 12 percent of American adults have advanced gum disease. By the age of 65 and above, about a quarter of Americans are already toothless.

According to the American Dental Association, the alarming statistics on dental health were due to the difficulty in accessing dental care, especially for low-income families who usually depend on government support when it comes to health.

ADA added that the challenges in the access of dental care include getting to a dental office, giving priority to oral care among other needs, overcoming barriers in finances, and passing through government assistance programs like Medicaid.

About 130 million Americans, mostly comprised of the adult population, have no dental coverage. Even state-sponsored programs like Medicare (for the elderly) and Medicaid (for low-income families) do not adequately — or not at all — cover the dental needs of their beneficiaries. Medicare does not include dental benefits, while Medicaid has limited dental coverage for adults and differs in every state.

Because of these problems in government assistance programs, oral health issues, most often, are taken for granted. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimated 6 billion US dollars losses in productivity and about 2 billion US dollars on emergency visit costs.

Dental Health and Overall Health: Are They Separate?

Julie Beck in her “Why Dentistry Is Separate From Medicine” article for The Atlantic attributed the challenge of accessing dental insurance to the notion that the mouth is divorced from the body and that Dentistry is considered as a separate discipline to Medicine as evident in the education system.

“That artificial division is bad for the public’s health,” wrote Dr. Bruce Donoff in his article “It’s Time to Break Down the Wall Between Dentistry and Medicine” for STAT — especially since oral-related issues affect overall health.

Studies have shown the link between gum disease and the development of a cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure, as well as, pre-eclampsia and low-birth-weight babies for pregnant women. A tooth infection can also lead to severe blood infection or sepsis or fatal blood infection like Deamonte’s case.

The American Dental Association also reported that 25 percent of adults do not smile, while 20 percent experience anxiety due to the condition of their mouth and teeth.

Poor oral health, wrote Dr. Donoff, is more than a tooth problem as we use the mouth for our daily activities, including eating, speaking, and breathing. Tooth pain can result in missed school or work days and unproductivity.  He added that there is a need to use a multidisciplinary, integrated, and patient-centric approach to overall health to emphasize disease prevention and health management.

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