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The “bus” stops here

Sealant vehicle

Dr. Dan Jones, professor
and chair of public health sciences,
checks out the mobile medical unit,
along with Benny Holland, director of the
health science center CLRC.

Photos by Steven Doll

It’s a special RV with a new mission and a new hometown — and its wheels are poised to deliver dental care and prevention around Dallas

The new Airstream RV parked by the Texas A&M Health Science Center Baylor College of Dentistry Sciences Building is anything but a recreational vehicle. This former mobile medical unit has found a new home and purpose in the dental school’s public health initiatives.

What this 39-foot marvel has not found is a new name. Now that it will be used to provide dental care, what should it be called? That’s probably the only thing Public Health Sciences Chair Dr. Dan Jones and those closest to the sealant program haven’t figured out. Right now, its paint job dubs it “Hippocrates.” On the seventh floor of the dental school, however, it’s affectionately known as “The Bus.”

While the verdict is still out on a name, plans are in the works for the vehicle to make the rounds on school sealant visits starting in August.

“Dr. Crane has been fidgeting since January,” Jones says of Associate Professor Dr. Stephen Crane’s reaction to the news in December 2011. “He was anxious just to see it and start thinking about how it could be used.”

In the short term, the unit will be used solely for the sealant program, which Crane oversees. Instead of transporting equipment via the smaller Seal Mobile van and setting up portable chairs in elementary school classrooms, dental chairs can be permanently installed in the new vehicle, which is currently outfitted for medical use. Plus, cargo space under the unit provides extra storage, so faculty, students and staff don’t have to caravan to community health fairs.

“We set out on a long struggle to figure out who could best use the mobile medical unit. It never fit into anyone’s program until BCD.”

—Benny Holland

Renovations are part of the long-term plans. They’ll be necessary to create two complete restorative dentistry operatories. Plus, one of the two current exam benches will be retained, so that the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine residents next door at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas can join the dental school during community visits.

Still, a few questions remain. Where did this vehicle come from and how did it come to reside in Dallas? It’s a story of grand ideas, a change of ownership and a continuing mission.

Changing hands: Meet Benny Holland

Benny Holland, director of the Clinical Learning Resource Center with TAMHSC’s Central Administration, doesn’t have what you’d call a typical career in higher education. He is the first to admit it.

“That would be a little bit out of the ordinary,” Holland says of his smorgasbord of skills that led him to inherit the mobile medical unit. Before starting at the health science center in 2005, he spent years in the Texas oil fields and even was an iron worker. In the ’90s, Holland used his nursing degree to treat Texas Department of Criminal Justice and Federal Bureau of Prison inmates via telemedicine. He also possessed another crucial credential: a commercial driver’s license.

His supervisor, in charge of new program development, was privy to this information. So in 2007, when the College of Medicine could no longer integrate the mobile medical unit into what was then the Brazos Family Medicine Residency program, she went straight to Holland.

“I guess I would use the word ‘serendipity,’” Holland says. “I happened to be here and it happened to show up, so ‘we were married,’” he jokes.

As caretaker of the mobile medical unit for the last several years, Holland has a fondness for the vehicle, which may explain why he was more than happy to share what he knows about its past.

Sealant vehicle

Holland passes off the keys to Dr. Stephen Crane, associate professor in public health

Lesson in history

The story begins in 2005, after former Congressman Chet Edwards successfully championed the value of a mobile medical unit with satellite capability. This was to equip family medicine residents for providing health care to people in rural communities through telemedicine, which allows physicians to “see” patients with the use of telecommunications equipment, even if they’re hundreds of miles away. Edwards, whose district included College Station, had the prototype donated to the TAMHSC-College of Medicine.

With time, though, the satellite equipment fell into disrepair and funds were not available for its maintenance or replacement. Because travel to remote locations was time-consuming and expensive, and driving the vehicle required a commercial driver’s license, the mobile medical unit was phased out of the family medicine residency program.

“We set out on a long struggle to figure out who could best use the mobile medical unit. It never fit into anyone’s program until BCD,” says Holland, who often drove the unit to Bryan-College Station events, where it served as a rolling advertisement for the health science center. For functions like the Special Olympics, medical residents volunteered with emergency medical technicians and made the vehicle their workstation, providing first aid.

Finding a new home: innovative use for a longtime TAMHSC asset

On a blustery early April morning Jones provided a tour of the mobile medical unit. It had been a little more than two weeks since March 16, when Holland drove it to TAMHSC-Baylor College of Dentistry. 

The tour reveals evidence Jones and Crane have been busy. Some panels from the enclosed medical exam room have been torn from one wall. The two have already come in with measuring tape and scrutinized dimensions. The consensus: space can be made for dental chairs. They have even taken the unit for a test drive, if just around the parking lot.

The significance of this addition to the public health sciences department’s community-based dental programs isn’t lost on them.

“It will give us more of a presence. It extends our reach. We’ll be able to do things we couldn’t do before.”

—Dr. Dan Jones

For starters, the mobile dental unit will allow public health sciences faculty to make sealant visits five days a week, instead of just four. And once they hire a driver with a commercial license who can also help with setup, all faculty members in the department can make sealant visit rotations part of their weekly schedule, instead of just Crane and Assistant Professor Dr. Shirley Miranda.

“We hope that this is going to do double duty,” says Jones. “Now anyone can supervise sealant visits. That gives us more freedom; that’s part of the advantage of the bus. We want to make it available for any faculty member or department who has an idea for an outreach event.”

As the sealant program enters its third year of funding from an Oral Health America Grant, it also has another resource: a new $20,000 “Healthy Smiles, Healthy Children” grant from the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry that will cover supplies, maintenance and fuel costs, and salaries for faculty and drivers.

Once the vehicle is renovated for restorative dentistry, Jones says it can be volunteered for Texas Mission of Mercy weekends or visits to women’s shelters to provide dental care for mothers and their children.

“It will give us more of a presence,” says Jones. “It extends our reach. We’ll be able to do things we couldn’t do before.”

Holland will continue to support this venture from his home base in College Station.

“I certainly have not taken it up (to Dallas), handed off the keys and said goodbye,” he says. “I’m still here. If I can help, and it’s in my ability, I will.

“I’m very hopeful that it becomes a good fit for BCD’s program. I think it’s a great opportunity.”