Arlington teen receives expensive dental surgery for free

Posted Tuesday, Jun. 24, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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A mouth full of baby teeth might look cute on a 5-year-old, but Hannah Farris said it’s difficult to accept when you are 15.

“I feel like when I talk, that’s all anybody looks at,” she said.

Hannah has ectodermal dysplasia, a hereditary disorder that involves defects in the hair, sweat glands, nails and teeth. The condition was discovered when she went to the dentist at age 6 and found out that she had no adult teeth to replace her baby teeth when they fell out.

For years, Hannah has felt self-conscious when she smiles or talks. But all that is about to change. On Tuesday, she had surgery to remove her loose and deteriorating baby teeth and replace them with dental implants that will give her a smile appropriate for someone her age.

“I’m nervous, but I’m really excited,” Hannah, an incoming freshman at Arlington High School, said the week before the procedure. “I think it’s going to change my life to where I’m more confident.”

The procedure when very well, her mother, Kristi Farris, said. Hannah has quite a bit of pain, as well as swelling and redness, but she is excited about her new teeth.

“She loves them,” Kristi Farris said.

The surgery is the culmination of a communitywide fundraising effort called Help Hannah Smile, which involved a small-business networking group, charitable organizations and the dentist who had been treating Hannah for almost 10 years.

“I have been overwhelmed,” said Hannah’s mother, Kristi Farris, who becomes teary-eyed while describing the outpouring of help. “I’ve lived in Arlington all my life. You hear about this happening for other people. It’s happening for me and Hannah.”

‘It was ust amazing’

Ectodermal dysplasia affects people in many different ways, according to the website of the National Foundation for Ectodermal Dysplasias. There are more than 150 different kinds of ectodermal dysplasias, and the symptoms range from mild to severe.

Hannah’s case involves not only the absence of adult teeth but also she does not have sweat glands and has to be cautious about getting overheated. She said her hair is also thin.

Although teeth were the most pressing problem for Hannah, her mother found out that surgery to have dental implants would cost $50,000 and would not be covered by insurance because it was considered a cosmetic procedure.

It wasn’t until Farris, a single mom, shared her plight with a friend one day while she was at the family’s apartment complex swimming pool that the dream of surgery started to become a reality. That friend, Clint Stephens, was concerned about the situation and wanted to do something to help.

Stephens, a member of a small-business networking group called Arlington Business Connections, told the organization about Hannah and found that members were receptive to helping her. In January, the group launched Help Hannah Smile, an effort to raise money for the teen’s surgery. Members made T-shirts, started a website and Facebook page and had one of its attorneys draw up legal documents to set up a trust in Hannah’s name.

“It was just amazing,” Stephens said of how the effort gained steam. “It told me that inside everyone is this willingness and this spirit to help.”

Media outlets found out about the effort and began airing stories about Hannah, which brought in more offers of help. Some people could only afford to make small donations, but other groups gave larger contributions, such as the $1,000 from the Arlington Fire Department’s Random Acts of Kindness. Hannah was the first recipient of money from the organization, which assists with needs that the department learns about during its interaction with the community.

Eric Uzelac, another member of the networking group, created lime-green T-shirts to publicize the effort for Hannah. He said the response renewed his faith in the goodness of people and their desire to assist someone who is struggling.

“For me, personally, it was really rewarding to see the sense of community here to come together and help a common cause,” he said.

‘Has a huge heart’

Despite the generosity, it still seemed like it would take at least a year to raise enough money for the surgery. But the effort got an unexpected boost in March. During a fundraiser at J. Gilligans Bar & Grill that was also held to celebrate Hannah’s 15th birthday, it was announced that her longtime dentist, Dr. Michael Oppedisano, would do the surgery and provide the implants for free.

“There wasn’t a dry eye in the place,” Kristi Farris said.

Hannah, who loves to help other people, then decided to give the $12,000 that had been raised through the Help Hannah Smile effort to Matti Rooks, a teen from Godley, in Johnson County, who has a more severe form of ectodermal dysplasia and also needs dental surgery.

Hannah could have used the money for college or to buy a car, but her mother said she wanted to help Matti have the same opportunity she has been given.

“She just has a huge heart,” Kristi Farris said. “What 15-year-old would want to help another kid and take from herself?”

Having the surgery this summer will fit in with Hannah’s school schedule and will come just in time to rescue the baby teeth that “have lasted way longer than they should last,” Oppedisano said.

Oppedisano said he decided to donate the surgery and implants after discussing Hannah’s case with his business partners at Archpoint Implant Dentisty in Dallas. Oppedisano, who has been treating Hannah since she was 6, said his team realized it would take a long time to raise the funds needed for the surgery.

The outpatient procedure will involve removing Hannah’s baby teeth, leveling the bone and inserting dental implants with adult-size teeth in Hannah’s mouth. The first set of teeth will be temporary and left in place for three to six months while Hannah heals. Then she will receive her permanent teeth, which will be made of porcelain and should last for many years.

“My anticipation is she’s going to do just fine,” said Oppedisano, to whom Hannah’s affectionately refers to as “Dr. O.” “I think she’ll adapt very readily to the new teeth.”

‘Mashed potatoes girl’

Even though the surgery means much of Hannah’s summer will be spent recovering, she’s excited about how the surgery will change her life. Not only will her confidence in her appearance improve, she said, but the self-proclaimed “mashed potatoes girl” will get to enjoy harder-to-chew foods like steak.

Hannah, who used to endure taunts from classmates about her appearance, said her deep faith in God has helped her realize that even though it’s difficult to deal with her disorder, she can use it for good.

“I used to think, ‘Why did God do this to me?’ ” she said. “But then I matured. I realize he gave it to me to help others who weren’t as strong.”

After her surgery and recuperation are complete, Kristi and Hannah Farris want to keep helping others. Hannah aims to start a foundation to assist those with ectodermal dysplasia, and someday she hopes to help them in a more hands-on way by having a dentistry practice like Oppedisano.

Stephens said that he and others have been touched by Hannah’s ability to look beyond herself and reach out to others in need.

“She’s doing it because it’s the right thing to do, and I think that’s really what captured people’s hearts,” he said.

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