Plunged into darkness
Apr 28, 2007 04:30 AM
TANNIS TOOHEY / TORONTO STAR
Korean-born Moses Han, 45, lost his business
after he went blind from a tooth infection
he couldn't afford to have treated.
For want of $1,300 to pay an
emergency dental bill, Moses Han went blind.
It was a simple problem to fix – for
those with the money or private dental insurance.
But Moses, born in Korea with the
name Jae-Bum Han, did not have either. He worked
14-hour days, seven days a week, in his Oakville
convenience store, the sole source of income he and
his wife, Gloria Joung-Rae Lee, used to raise three
young daughters in their nearby townhouse.
Too embarrassed to tell his dentist
he didn't have the money, Moses decided to take the
pain. When he walked out of a Mississauga dental
clinic last October, Moses knew only that the nerves
in his back left molar were dying.
What he did not know is that
abscesses can develop in dead teeth. Dr. Hazel
Stewart, of Toronto Public Health, says these
infections can expand swiftly, sometimes creating
severe distress within 48 hours.
Left unchecked, infection can spread
through the neck, jaw and torso. It can creep upward
to the nerves and blood vessels that surround the
brain, and the orbital cavities around the eyes.
Three days after he left the dental
office, Moses' face grew red and swollen. It was the
first sign of the infection and despite another
visit to the dentist, bouts of antibiotics and
hospitalization, it would ultimately consume his
Moses' story illustrates the need
for access to dental care for those without private
insurance, said Stewart, an advocate of publicly
funded oral health care, especially for the poor.
It is not unusual for financially
struggling parents to live with the ache of rotting
teeth, with no public dental insurance in Ontario
and only basic coverage for those on social
"I feel like crying when I hear
this," Stewart said. "This shows what happens when
there is nothing in the system that allows people to
readily access affordable dental care.
"People don't realize that your
teeth are vital organs. If your finger was rotting
away, you wouldn't just sit there with it."
In January, the Toronto Star
published a story about young Jason Jones, who lost
all his teeth because of a lifetime of poverty. The
response from readers calling for better dental care
was swift. Stewart and the Toronto Oral Health
Coalition wrote to Health Minister George
Smitherman, asking him for dental clinics in
existing community health centres.
Earlier, Stewart had said it would
cost about $2 million a year to provide dental care
in health centres across the GTA, a fraction of the
province's annual health budget of $35.4 billion.
The centres are funded by
Smitherman's office. Yet he passed the letter to the
Community and Social Services Minister, Madeleine
So far, said Stewart, no one from
the Ontario government has responded. "We are just
asking for basic services."
Dental care is not included in
Canada's medicare system so provincial health
insurance does not cover it. There are some options
for treatment. For those on social assistance and
the Ontario Disability Support Program, there's
basic coverage, but no preventative treatment.
In Oakville, where Moses lives,
there is some help available, but only for those on
social assistance or with special needs. Dr. Bob
Hawkins, dental consultant for the Halton Region
Health Department, said there is nothing for
low-income earners. "The working poor, that is the
group that is missing out."
Moses did go to the same dentist
occasionally, since 1999. With no insurance, he paid
for cleanings, fillings and once, had a root canal.
But last October, he did not realize the
significance of one sore tooth.
A lay minister with a local Korean
Christian church, Moses blames no one for his
blindness. He said through an interpreter, that he
has a new sense of peace. He did not want the name
of the dentist revealed, fearing that he would make
the man feel bad.
Yesterday, the dentist who treated
him said that Moses came on October 13, with pain
and swelling. The dentist was busy, so Moses
arranged to come back three days later, at which
time the dead tooth was drained and he received a
prescription for antibiotics. The dentist said Moses
did not tell him that he could not afford the $1,300
fee he quoted for the root canal and crown.
For the cost of that first dental
bill, the system is now paying hundreds of thousands
of dollars for Moses' medical care.
Moses took the medication. But he
called the dentist at home two weeks later, to say
the swelling had come back. The dentist said he
prescribed more antibiotics and told him if it
didn't clear up in a few days, he should go to the
hospital. From there, he said, the hospital took
over Moses' care.
"It is an unforeseen, very
unfortunate incident," the dentist said. "Who knew?"
Dr. Lesley David, an oral surgeon in
Mississauga, said infections can quickly spread
through the bloodstream or the body. "The issue is
catching it early enough," she said.
Moses went to Oakville Trafalgar
Memorial Hospital and doctors decided that the
infection was so bad he had to be hospitalized. (The
hospital said it could not comment on his
He said he was put on antibiotics,
staying for roughly three weeks. After his release
in December, he was sent to an oral surgeon, who
removed the rotten tooth. Moses said his mouth was
swollen so badly the surgeon had to wait that long.
He spent Christmas at home. But in
mid-January the infection returned. He noticed a
black mark on his right eye and went back to the
The infection was spreading.
He doesn't remember losing his
sight. There were operations to remove more pus, and
when his conditioned worsened, he was sent to
Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.
While he was in the acute care
hospital, tubes in his torso draining the infection,
Gloria ran the store, and cared for their daughters,
aged 6, 4 and 2.
In their family, everyone had a role
to play. Their survival was dependent on each
person's hard work. Without Moses to run the store,
Dave Sayer is a retired Oakville
firefighter, and customer. He noticed Moses' swollen
face in December. Over the winter, he saw Gloria at
the store. She said they were fine.
"Finally, I could see it in her
eyes," Sayer said. "She was just overwhelmed with
In March, after he learned about
Moses' health, Sayer helped in the store, relieving
Gloria, while she went to hospital and cared for her
girls. But without Moses working, they were forced
to sell the store, barely covering their debt.
Sayer spoke to the Oakville
Professional Firefighters Association and, with the
Salvation Army and Oakville councillor Marc Grant,
they planned a fundraising dinner for May 26 at
Munn's United Church. A Scotiabank trust fund has
been created for the family. "These are very gentle
people, very positive people. We are going to do
what we can to help."
This week, Moses spoke of his
experience. His English is limited, as is his
understanding of the medical system.
In a lounge at Oakville hospital,
his youngest daughter wiggling at his feet, Moses
sits with a white cane on his lap. He is tiring.
Instead of using the interpreter, he speaks in
English, quietly, saying he is finding happiness
again, but his words portray a pleasure of the most
"It all stopped in January. My
daughters are growing fast. But I remember them (as)
He stands up, trying to walk, his
thin legs knocking the table. Gloria takes his arm.
His youngest daughter dances, smiling for her Dad,
unaware he does not see her.