Deana Absher Billings made a career out of responding to unmet dental needs and in the process helped Wilkes County become a leader in this area of healthcare.
Partly for her 21 years as director of the Wilkes Public Health Dental Clinic, Billings was presented a “Special Recognition Award” on May 19 during the 2022 N.C. Dental Society’s Annual Session in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
An awards event handout said the Wilkes Public Health Dental Clinic has become a “beacon for public health dental clinics in North Carolina.” It recognized Billings for working tirelessly to help start the clinic and said peers from across the state travel to Wilkes to learn from her.
The handout said Billings was lead instructor in Wilkes Community College’s dental assisting program for 13 years after co-founding the program in 1986. She was chair of the Dental Health Section of the N.C. Public Health Association for several years and president of the N.C. Dental Assistants Association.
Upon receiving the award, Billings said she is proud of what the dental clinic has accomplished in Wilkes, especially the many children and adults it provided dental care who otherwise wouldn’t have received this.
She recognized Cindy Ashley, dental clinic office manager, and Dawn Jolly, mobile dental clinic program manager, and said they’ve been by her side through all the ups and downs in keeping the clinic going.
Retiring in SeptemberBillings is retiring in September. She and her husband, David Billings, plan to move to Alleghany County, where they were raised. They have two adult children.
The new clinic director is Arden Jolley of Hickory. She has held several positions, including appointment coordinator, treatment coordinator, marketing coordinator, dental assistant and office manager. Jolley currently is an office manager in a large dental practice.
A statement submitted when Billings was nominated for the award said much of the dental clinic’s success was due to her dental knowledge and hard work. Dr. Keith Bentley, retired local dentist, and Barbara Gregory, retired after serving as N.C. Department of Health and Human Services public health dental hygienist assigned to Wilkes County, nominated her.
Billings said the clinic has 12,000-13,000 patients (about 55% children and 45% adults) when fully staffed with four dentists. One Two dentist’s position is currently vacant. She said it’s hard to draw dentists to rural areas, despite them being able to get $50,000 paid on student loans for staying two years and $100,000 for four years of service.
She said 70-75% of the dental clinic’s patients are covered by Medicaid, 5-7% have private insurance and 10-20% have no insurance and pay on an income-based sliding scale. The clinic provides a full range of dental services.
Since establishment of the dental clinic, Wilkes has ranked among top counties in the state in treatment with protective dental sealants and in other areas of pediatric dental care.
Dental health care task forceEfforts for the dental clinic began with a meeting of local dental and other health professionals and clergy at First Baptist Church of North Wilkesboro in June 1996. They were invited by Dr. Paul Coggins, DDS, Judy West of the Wilkes Community Health Council and Dr. Nelson Granade, pastor of First Baptist.
It was stated in the meeting that nine of the 10 dentists in Wilkes weren’t accepting Medicaid because it paid so poorly and other issues, only five were accepting new patients and only four were accepting children. Billings said there also were concerns about a large number of dental emergencies at Wilkes Regional Medical Center.
The next step was establishment of a dental health task force, consisting of Coggins and West as co-chairs and Billings, Granade, Dr. Keith Bentley, Dr. Brad Shinaman, Dr. Michael Andreski, Dr. Harry Baldwin, Barbara Gregory, Lois Chandler-Cousins, the Rev. Harry Sellers, Tracie Miller, Frances Fennell, Donnie Bumgarner, Helen Shinaman, David Mielke, Kathy Johnson, Rev. Al Andrews, Rev. David Heil and Denise Brewster.
Billings said Paul Hugger, chaplain at Wilkes Regional Medical Center; Penny Musson, a nurse in the Wilkes schools; and Sharon Guenther from the Wilkes schools also played key roles in establishing the need for a mobile dental clinic.
Efforts of task force members and others resulted in the Wilkes Public Health Dental Clinic opening in Dr. Dwight Ware’s former dental building in downtown Wilkesboro in 2000, with a dentist, dental assistant and receptionist. It had incorporated as a non-profit the prior year, with a 16-member board called the Wilkes Dental Consortium.
Billings said that when Health Foundation Director Heather Murphy learned that the clinic had over 600 children on a waiting list, she communicated this and the Health Foundation offered space formerly occupied by Sky City in West Park, North Wilkesboro.
Necessary renovations were funded by the Health Foundation, Duke Endowment and Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust. Dr. Steve Jackson, chair of the clinic facilities committee, coordinated plans with Alvin Sturdivant, volunteer project superintendent.
The dental clinic opened at West Park with two dentists, additional support staff and six treatment rooms in its current location in March 2001. Billings left WCC then to become clinic director.
Mobile dental clinicWith Health Foundation funding, a mobile dental clinic (in body of a small bus) was purchased and began serving children in the Wilkes schools in fall 2001. Visits to rural medical centers soon were added.
A third dentist was added in the summer of 2002. This person spoke English and Spanish to better meet needs of Latino patients. A fourth dentist was soon added to expand adult care.
With four dentists, the clinic was expanded to occupy more space at West Park in 2004. This allowed for a larger children’s clinic and a separate adult clinic.
With funding from the Golden LEAF Foundation and the Health Foundation, a new mobile dental clinic was purchased to replace the original unit in 2014.
The mobile clinic now visits all Wilkes public schools, Mountain View and Clingman Medical Centers, Wilkes Developmental Day Care, Eckerd Connects facility in Boomer, several private day care centers and Wilkes Senior Village.
In 2014, a new mobile dental clinic was added to replace the original mobile clinic thanks to financial support. Additionally, the fixed site was given a face lift to improve the appearance and meet new regulations.
Portable dental equipment recently was purchased with a Duke Endowment grant. This equipment can be broken down and set up in any space at a school or facility.
Experience in eighth gradeBillings became interested in dental care as a profession as a result of an experience she had as an eighth-grader at Sparta Elementary School. Principal John Miller asked Billings and his son, Greg Miller, then to assist Dr. Jim Ellis, a public health dentist, when Ellis provided dental care for students at the school for about a month.
She handing instruments to Ellis and provided suction as he cleaned and pulled teeth, put in fillings and provided other dental care.
She went to Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte after graduating from Alleghany High School in 1979, planning to study dental hygiene but instead choosing dental assisting because of the greater variety of tasks it offered. About eight community colleges statewide offered dental assisting then, all one-year programs.
While at CPCC, she was elected treasurer of the N.C. Community College Student Government Association and then the first female president of the N.C. community college SGA. She also worked part-time in a public health clinic in Charlotte at this same time.
After finishing at CPCC with a certificate in dental assisting and an associate degree, she returned to Sparta and married David Billings. She started working full-time as a dental assistant for Dr. Ron Key in Sparta in 1982.
Billings met Dr. Keith Bentley and Dr. J.B. West, both with dental practices in Wilkes, while attending meetings of a chapter of the N.C. Dental Assistants Association for Alleghany, Surry and Wilkes counties (which she helped start) and the area chapter of the N.C. Dental Society.
She agreed when Bentley and West asked her to start teaching part-time in a dental auxiliary program at WCC in 1983, while she continued working fulltime for Key. The program was two quarters long, which was equal to one semester. Billings joined just before WCC went to a semester system.
Billings said the WCC program provided people the hours of training they needed for dental x-ray certification, while also covering chairside dental assisting, dental hygiene, infection control, sterilization, anatomy and certain other relevant topics. “There was such a need for this” in Wilkes and other area counties, she said.
WCC officials soon initiated, with support from Bentley, West and other dentists, efforts for a one-year, dental assisting program with accreditation through the American Dental Association (ADA). Billings helped achieve this and was named the program’s first director when it received preliminary accreditation in 1986.
The ADA required that the director have a four-year degree, so Billings enrolled in Appalachian State University for a bachelor of science degree in health education. She focused all of her projects at ASU on dentistry. She received a K12 teaching certification with her degree.
The WCC dental assisting program began in August 1986 with 10 students. It added a dental clinic for WCC students its first year, providing work experience for dental assisting students and addressing a great need for dental care, said Billings. It was staffed by local dentists and charged a minimal fee for services.
She said many of the dental assisting students at WCC wanted to become dental hygienists so WCC partnered with Catawba Valley Community College in Hickory establish this at CVCC. Billings served on the advisory committee for this.
She said WCC initially was guaranteed two student slots in each two-year cohort at CVCC, plus students in the CVCC program who completed the WCC dental assisting program didn’t have to repeat certain courses.