Khoa Hoang, 29, remembers when he came to this country nine years ago from Vietnam.
"When we first came and didn't know the language, my parents had low paying jobs. I know how it feels to have no money and need health care. I went through public health services," said Hoang.
Hoang now is a third year student at Oregon Health Sciences University's School of Dentistry. On a recent Saturday morning he was at OHSU's Russell Street Clinic in North Portland volunteering his time to help the many patients in need of dental care.
"This is my way to pay back what was given to me. I have a chance now to help people who can't pay and need care. Most patients are a little scared but really nice. So I don't mind getting up early on Saturdays," he said.
He had just spent about an hour with Marcus Sanders, 8, of Portland. Hoang determined that the young boy needed dental work on several teeth. But Marcus wouldn't open his mouth.
"He likes the cleaning part. But he's a little scared," said his stepfather, James Slaughter. "We like it here. They take their time with the kids. And it's close to home and open on Saturday."
Marcus will have to come back to complete his dental needs.
Hoang, or one of the other dental student volunteers, will be there. This first official group of nine volunteers will be working at the clinic half days for six Saturdays. In the first four Saturdays, they treated 54 patients providing comprehensive dental care.
At the Russell Street Clinic, OHSU School of Dentistry students and faculty care for low-income patients, including a large number of HIV-infected patients, Head Start program students and the homeless.
The clinic also is the setting for the fourth year dental students' clinical rotation.
"Those students would go back to the school and talk about how great it was to be at Russell Street," said Bob Johnson, D.M.D. assistant professor of community dentistry, OHSU School of Dentistry.
Hearing the fourth-year students' rave about their experience at Russell Street would lead one or two dental students each Saturday to volunteer at the clinic.
"We decided to make this volunteer time more official. We made up a flyer, and put it in every student's mailbox," Johnson said. Within an hour, they had four students in the community dentistry office ready to sign up. Five more students signed up before the program began in February. The students earn one elective credit for their time.
Johnson or other dental faculty at the clinic closely supervises the volunteers. They provide comprehensive care to all their patients including crowns, extractions, root canal therapy, complete restorative treatments, just about everything, Johnson said. Their 10 treatment rooms are always full.
"Our philosophy here is the Nordstrom approach -- the patient comes first and foremost. Service is second to none," Johnson said.
The students, like Hoang, feel they are doing something good for their community.
They also said that they get more experience than they would on an average day in dental school.
"I get to function more independently. It makes me feel more confident and it's a more relaxed atmosphere," said Janel Ancheta, 24, a third-year student from Oahu, Hawaii.
Most patients are very appreciative of having these students help them.
Sonia Hudson, 40, has been coming to Russell Street for 20 years. Her grandchildren use the clinic for their dental needs. Hudson, a cosmetologist, was in severe pain and William Bateman, 32, a third-year student from Las Vegas, Nev., was trying to locate the source of this pain.
"I like the fact that there's a doctor and a student. The student has to answer to somebody -- his teacher. The students are very thorough and very compassionate," she said.
Editor's note: Digital photos of these student volunteers and their patients are available on request.