by Daphne Young and Mariko Rath
The Bayview Hunters Point community has a real-life Dental Robin Hood.
Bayview native 34-year-old Dr. Rubin Sorrell II is one of two Black dentists now working at the Marin City Health and Wellness Center in Bayview on the corner of Third Street and Ingerson Avenue, the former site of the historic Arthur H. Coleman Medical Center.
In 2016, the SF Bay View introduced you to the young Black Phillip and Sala Burton Academic High School graduate who created the Dental Robin Hood foundation, and spent that summer going door to door with toothbrushes and toothpaste in hand, trying to promote healthy dental hygiene throughout the community.
“Well, being born and raised in Bayview, fourth generation, we have been affected by everything, whether it be COVID or other diseases, at a disproportionate rate,” said Sorrell.
Historically, the Bayview Hunters Point community has been impacted by toxic waste testing and dumping in the U.S. Navy Shipyard. Studies have found that Bayview Hunters Point residents are hospitalized more than residents of other neighborhoods in San Francisco for almost every disease, including asthma, congestive heart failure, diabetes and urinary tract infections.
Dr. Sorrell says the lack of dental health providers also plays a huge part in Bayview residents’ overall health.
“There are no private clinics,” said Sorrell. “There’s not one private dental office in Bayview. I’m sure there’s one maybe in District 10, but there’s not one in Bayview. There’s only two dental offices in this area. It’s my office and the Southeast [SFDPH’s Family Health Center] – at least for now.”
“It’s not about getting out,” said Sorrell. “It’s about helping the people that are still in the community.”
That’s why Sorrell says he knew he had to return to Bayview after finishing college at North Carolina A&T University. And, after a short stint in the U.S. Army, Sorrell headed back to school, this time in the Bay Area, where he completed dental school at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF).
Harold Wallace, CEO of the Marin City Health and Wellness Clinic, where Sorrell works says most Black doctors are not drawn to the Bay Area.
“A lot of us are concentrated back in the South, East, in Atlanta and Charlotte, in Nashville, Birmingham, Alabama, Dallas, Houston and New Orleans,” said Wallace. “That’s where we [Black doctors] are more concentrated.”
A Meharry Medical College graduate himself, Wallace adds that the migration south for most Black doctors is mostly due to the low cost of living in those cities, in comparison to places like San Francisco.
“Insurance runs dentistry,” said Sorrell. “People make their whole practice in how they run their dentistry in this generation based on what the insurance company or non-oral health entity essentially says that they’ll pay.”
“So when we talk about inequity within the community, the number one social determiner for any urban core is transportation,” said Wallace. “So therefore, if you have to travel to go and get it, you’re more likely not to get it.”
Wallace adds that’s why it’s so important to be able to provide Black and Brown doctors in predominantly Latino, Black and Asian-Pacific Islander communities like Bayview.
“We need additional providers, and we also need additional dental assistants to be able to do that work,” said Wallace.
Dr. Charlyne Mason-Dozier is the chief dental officer at the Marin City Health and Wellness Clinic (MCHWC) Bayview location and the other Black doctor who works alongside Dr. Rubin Sorrell II.
“I will put us up against any private practice,” said Mason-Dozier. “As far as infection control, as far as screening our patients, we do full vitals. We do hemoglobin tests, we do blood glucose for our patients and we are constantly aware of their medical conditions.”
In regards to dental care, Mason-Dozier wants to remind residents in Bayview, “One thing that I think people don’t realize is California has excellent dental coverage for people that have DentiCal. It really is excellent coverage. It is better than a lot of other states across the country. And it’s kind of sad that it goes underutilized.”
Sorrell said, “For my patient population who have MediCal, DentiCal or San Francisco Health Network, they predominantly don’t pay.” Sorrell adds, “We also have a sliding scale fee for people who might be just out of the income range or like a nominal fee at every price point.”
Dr. Sorrel and Dr. Dozier both note that even though there are no private dental offices in Bayview, there are two low-cost or no-cost dental clinics: the San Francisco Department of Public Health runs the Southeast Family Health Center, located at 2403 Keith St., and the Marin City Health and Wellness Clinic on Third Street.
Yet, Bayview residents still suffer from the highest number of dental problems.
“Well, African American children have more incidents of decay, untreated decayed teeth. And so that’s a major concern,” said Mason-Dozier. “And then also, African American pregnant women are not seeking oral health care during their pregnancy in numbers that would prevent them from having dental emergencies during their pregnancy.”
Dozier says this is mostly due to poor dental hygiene habits and lack of information.
In the spirit of Dr. Arthur H. Coleman, the MCHWC and Dr. Sorrell’s foundation, Dental Robin Hood hopes to improve the dental health of these target groups, as well as the Bayview community as a whole.
“Dental Robin Hood is a sponsor for the Bayview Oral Health Task Force for CavityFree SF, our local oral health coalition,” said Dr. Helen Yu with SFDPH. “Besides participating in CavityFree SF, Dr. Sorrell also participates in volunteering to conduct screenings for the SFDPH school based program.”
Dental Robin Hood has partnered with both the San Francisco Department of Public Health and the UCSF Dental School to help improve outreach to the Bayview community who Dr. Yu and Dr. Sorrell say has clients with a high number of missing teeth.
“I would say more than 50-60 percent or more than half of our patient population has missing teeth in some form,” said Dr. Yu.
Dr. Yu is referring to patients she sees at the Southeast Family Medical Center for dental care.
Dr. Sorrell says at the MCHWC offices in Bayview the percentage of clients suffering from missing teeth is even higher than 50 percent.
“I’m gonna go with probably 70 percent of dental patients are dealing with missing teeth,” said Sorrell. “And it’s at different levels, too. It could be people who have teeth that need to get removed, or they’re just in pain, but don’t want to deal with the whole process of a treatment plan. So, they opt for tooth removal.”
Dr. Sorrell, with his foundation, Dental Robin Hood, along with his cohorts at MCHWC, have their work cut out for them working to get people to come back to the dentist.
“I say the real issue is the consistency,” said Sorrell. “When some patients come into the office, they say, ‘Fix my teeth.’ And, a lot of patients think of it as ‘how many visits until I’m done?’ But, Sorrel asks, ‘When are you ever done with your teeth’?”
Dr. Sorrel wants people to know, “You’re never done with the dentist. It’s a lifelong relationship. When you treat oral health solely like an emergency service or a once-in-a-while commitment, that’s how you lose more teeth.”
Sorrell’s day job is at the Marin City Health and Wellness Center, which sits at the end of the Third Street corridor in the same location where the historical Arthur H. Coleman Medical Center was built back in 1959. That location, at 6301 3rd St., is now preserved as a historical landmark.
Dr. Arthur H. Coleman was the first Black physician in San Francisco and he operated a state-of-the-art health and dental clinic for more than 30 years.
Bayview native and environmental activist Arieann Harrison recalls visiting Dr. Coleman’s office as a kid. “We had to go to Coleman Clinic to get our physicals for school,” said Harrison. “So he provided services for my whole entire family. Actually, from the Bayview district all the way to Lakeview, people came to see him, and we haven’t had a Black physician to fill those shoes in a very long time.”
Bayview resident Milton Scott and his wife Unette say their families were also treated at the Coleman Clinic back in the day.
“Yeah, my parents went to the Coleman Clinic for years,” said Scott. “I never went there myself, but for both my mom, dad, grandma and other older relatives, that was the place they went for medical and dental care.”
Scott’s wife Unette adds,” I remember my mom taking us up there.” Unette says, “It was just the place to go to the doctor in the community, and they had Black doctors back then.”
Dr. Coleman died in 2002, leaving behind a huge gap in medical and dental care for residents in Bayview.
“It was a great loss to the community,” said Harrison, who knows a thing or two about health challenges and disparity, being a fourth-generation Bayview native.
The Marin City Health and Wellness Center bought the Bayview property in 2017. Wallace says they’ve been working to restore the type of medical and dental services Coleman’s center was known for in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s.
“Our focus has been to really get Marin City Health and Wellness Clinic in San Rafael up, and now that we have it up and functioning, we are now moving in the direction of coming to Bayview Hunters Point,” said Wallace.
Bayview resident Lillian Dawson says it’s been a while since she went to the Bayview clinic. “I went to Dr. Coleman’s clinic … and got some dentures and they are pretty good,” said Dawson. “I’ve had them for two years, and they were real good to me there. But, there weren’t any Black doctors then.”
Sorrell says he wants to provide the kind of role model that Dr. Coleman did, which is why he chose to come back to Bayview and work with the MCHWC at Coleman’s historic location.
“Dr. Coleman’s work in this community has had a huge impact on me,” said Sorrell. “He’s the forefather of health equality in Bayview to me.”
So, Sorrell plans to continue his work at both MCHWC and the Dental Robin Hood foundation.
“We’re starting our oral health task force and our first meeting is going to be Jan. 11 at the Southeast Community Center,” said Sorrell.
His plan is to hold monthly meetings and then Sorrell is hosting a briefing for the Bayview community in May.
“I’m taking it on as my personal mission to educate children through the school district and try to work with the adults who come into our office to improve the dental health of residents in this community.”
Many residents say Dr. Sorell’s presence is welcome and long overdue.“It’s wonderful to see Black doctors in our community again,” said Harrison. “We’ve needed them for a long time. I hope they’re here to stay.”
Daphne Young is an award-winning reporter who’s worked in radio and television from coast to coast (Chicago, New York, New Jersey, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Miami, Las Vegas and now San Francisco). The Chicago native began her journalism career as an intern at the Chicago Daily Defender newspaper. Daphne has received honors from the Society of Professional Journalists, the New Jersey Associated Press, the Public Radio News Directors Inc., and the New York Association of Black Journalists. Contact Daphne Young at @youngdaphne and Mariko Rath at @marikoraewyn.