“We talk about food deserts, but health-care deserts are things we often see, especially east of the river here,” Myles told me.
I visited Myles at Bread for the City’s new Michelle Obama Southeast Center, on Good Hope Road SE. The medical clinic there has been seeing patients since October.
“At Bread for the City, we try to be low-barrier,” Myles said. “We have a medical home model.”
That means someone can come in off the street — with no regular dentist, eye doctor, general practitioner or therapist — and establish a relationship, all under one roof, whether that roof is in Southeast or at Bread for the City’s existing center, on Seventh Street NW.
“Northwest is rich with options, as far as dental care goes, for people who can pay,” Myles said.
Even for those who can’t pay, Northwest Washington is home to some free or low-cost clinics. That hasn’t been the case in Southeast.
“In Southeast I’m meeting a different patient,” Myles said. “I’m meeting some patients who have had routine care, but oftentimes clinics open and close in Southeast. I just spoke with a potential patient who had had no dental care for the last 30 years.”
Sometimes, a dental provider has come into business and then shuttered. Said Myles: “There’s no handoff of care, and the patient is now left to swim and find their nearest location.”
A lack of money or insurance can be behind the neglect of teeth. When you’re struggling to pay for housing and food, seeing a dentist is way down the list of priorities. That’s where Bread for the City comes in. Patients are treated regardless of their ability to pay.
Myles grew up in Chicago. During the summers, he worked in his uncle’s dental office.
“I ended up really liking it,” he said. Myles went to Howard University as an undergraduate and stayed there to earn his degree in dentistry.
“I was always interested in public health,” he said. “I’ve always been drawn to service.”
That was a lesson instilled by his parents, who were both active in their church. Myles remembers accompanying his father when he visited those too sick to attend services.
After completing his studies at Howard, Myles did a year-long residency at St. Elizabeths, one of only a handful of residency programs in a psychiatric hospital.
“The ability to really relate to people was the most important takeaway,” he said.
His St. E’s patients had experienced traumas most of us won’t, but many of us have issues regarding dentists. I can still remember the childhood experience that put me off dentistry for a long time. “Are you going to pull my tooth?” I nervously asked the dentist.
“No,” he replied, before grabbing the offending tooth with an instrument and doing exactly that.
Myles’s history of service, his commitment to public health and his experience at St. Elizabeths made him perfect for Bread for the City, whose staff he joined 10 years ago. Dental hygienist Chaina Cooper has been at Bread for the City for three years.
“I think it’s important for any institution to have roots in the city,” Myles said. “Bread for the City has been in Northwest for 47 years now. Someone may not be familiar with dentistry at Bread for the City, but they are familiar with the name itself. It just has a good reputation that oftentimes can attract people.”
In other words, a lot of patients come to Dr. Smyles just as you’d expect: through word of mouth.
Bread for the City is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand, our annual reader fundraising drive. To give, visit posthelpinghand.com. That’s where you can also learn about our other charity partners, Friendship Place and Miriam’s Kitchen.
Our goal is to raise $250,000 by Jan. 7. After our first week, we stand at $16,245.95. Thank you!
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.