This was a fun time at the Marana Health Center where about 50 people turned out May 6 to express their appreciation for the people who have made possible the center's new $500,000 dental clinic.

"Remarkable, incredible" were the words being used to describe the product of their labors and the upgrading of services the new clinic will provide as they munched on celebratory pizza and sipped their soft drinks during grand opening ceremonies.

Just two weeks since opening its doors, the clinic already had a two-month waiting list, primarily due to word of mouth referrals from residents receiving other health care services provided by the Marana Health Center, said Dione Czlapka, the clinic's dental hygienist.

"People just seem so incredibly amazed and appreciative of the technology and level of service we're able to provide," Czlapka said. "I can't think of anything anyone will be lacking. We've got it all and more."

The somewhat unexpected demand is largely a result of residents who have put off receiving care because they couldn't afford going to the lone dental practice in the area, she said.

The new clinic is open to anyone and accepts those who are Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System eligible, private insurance and self-payment. Patients also can apply for payment on a sliding scale based on income and other factors.

It's a totally paperless clinic. All records are stored in a digital format. X-rays are digitally processed with screens at the feet and back of each of the clinic's five chairs so both patient and dentist can see the results at the same time and chart progress.

Other state of the art equipment allows staff members to turn on a sink or open a cabinet with a mere nudge of the knee, thus avoiding glove contamination, said Clarence Vatne, Marana Health Center's executive director.

It's not just the technology that has earned patients' admiration, Vatne said. "One of the things that is making the clinic such a success is the staff," Vatne said. "This is one of the more outstanding staffs you could ever assemble."

Jay Schmidt, the center's dental director, began providing services in February 2003 out of a 10-foot by 20-foot trailer leased from the Arizona Department of Health Services, recognizing the community's status as an underserved area. At the time Schmidt, a Northwest area resident, had been working at Kino Community Hospital and was preparing to get married when he saw an ad in the paper and decided to do some "moonlighting."

Three weeks later, he was working out of the trailer 16 hours a week, four hours on Mondays and Wednesdays and eight hours on Saturdays. He began working full-time in the trailer in January.

"Those were very close quarters and it wasn't very comfortable," said the 6-foot-three-inch Schmidt. "But I'm glad I did it. It's turned out to be a great facility, it's awesome and patients' reactions have been nothing but positive"

In addition to Schmidt and Czlapka, the staff includes three dental assistants, one dental student and two receptionists, serving about 80 patients a week during hours of operation from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday. A second dentist is scheduled to arrive in July to better meet the growing demand.

Construction of the clinic, which started in November, is being financed by a loan from Stockmen's Bank to be repaid from clinic revenues over the next five years.

The clinic also received a $200,000 federal grant from the Bureau of Primary Health Care, of which $150,000 is being used to offset the cost of providing services to those who would otherwise be unable to afford the care and the remainder to purchase equipment.

"Eighteen months ago I saw an ad in the paper for a dentist and when I met with Clarence (Vatne) I asked him where we would be working," Schmidt told an appreciative ribbon cutting audience. "He pointed to an empty parking lot. We've come a long way since then."

Added Vatne: "This, we hope, will be the beginning of what will be a long and successful run of providing quality dental care to the community."

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