Thanks from a mother's loving heart

Greatest GiftIn 20 short years, Andrew Whitehurst has overcome more adversity than most of us will face in a lifetime. Complications at Andrew’s birth were later diagnosed as cerebral palsy, epilepsy and autism. Doctors told his mother Melissa her son would never walk or talk. He does both. He also does laundry and for Andrew, a trip to the local Laundromat is like a day in Disneyworld. His simple joy for life always evokes a smile from his mom. But Andrew’s own smile was sorely deteriorating to a point that no one fully understood until a visit to the Naples Children & Education Foundation (NCEF) Dental Pediatric Center, last May. It was a visit that would change his life.

For most families, the annual trip to the dentist is routine, compulsory and sometimes anxiety ridden, but for Melissa and Andrew, it was a nightmare.

“Over the years it has been extremely difficult to obtain proper dental care for Andy,” she explains. “Exams made him a nervous wreck. He tends to be very fearful and loud so they were not able to complete a thorough exam.”

Even basic treatment, such as cleanings, required anesthesia, for which the family’s medical and dental insurance companies refused to pay. Despite attempts of several pediatric dental agencies to examine Andrew without anesthesia, the extent of Andrew’s dental issues remained unknown.

“I knew Andy hated to have his teeth brushed,” Melissa says. “But I had no idea how serious his dental issues were.”

Last year, Andrew was referred by his family dentist to the NCEF Pediatric Dental Center on the Naples campus of Edison State College. The center is one of very few in the state with the resources to provide specialized dental care for children like Andrew. Staffed by the Healthcare Network of Southwest Florida and pediatric dental residents from the University of Florida College of Dentistry, this 20,000 square foot, state-of-the-art facility offers routine and specialty services for underserved children ages birth to 21.

Andrew was seen by Dr. Lauren Governale, Clinical Director of NCEF Pediatric Dental Center, who recommended further treatment under anesthesia.

“Andrew is one of hundreds of patients at the center who lack the ability to cooperate for complex dental care in the clinic environment,” Dr. Governale explains. “Thanks to NCEF, the Center has been provided the tools needed in order to help these families.”

She added the Center also works in partnership with Lee Memorial Health System, which allows access to its operating room and anesthesia team to provide special needs patients with comfortable care under general anesthesia.

Despite these resources, the need far outweighs availability so Andrew remained on a waiting list for over a year.

“When our time finally came we were extremely pleased with the care provided to Andy as well as the concern and kindness extended to our entire family,” Melissa says.

During the three hour surgery, Dr. Governale was able to address years of serious dental issues, resulting in one extraction and 20 restorations. As the hours stretched on, Melissa was relieved that her son was comfortable, tolerated the procedures well and was able to return home the same day.

But it wasn’t until that evening and the days that followed that Melissa would realize the extent of her son’s previous debilitating pain.

In a heartfelt letter to Dr. Governale, Melissa shared, “Although Andrew has extremely limited verbal communication, you cannot imagine how thrilled I was that night when he looked deep into my eyes and said clearly, ‘teeth no hurt.’ “

Since his dental surgery, Andrew’s medications have been reduced by an amazing 90 percent, astounding his physicians. These medications included drugs to address behavior, which Melissa now believes was greatly affected by years of constant dental pain.

Freedom from pain has also changed Andrew’s social life. Formerly a homebody, he now loves going places, especially the MOSI Science Center in Tampa. He is an avid football fan and proudly serves as the Official Towel Washer for the Geneva Classical Academy Knights, his brothers’ football team.

“It has been a delight getting to know the new Andrew - our family, friends and physicians are overwhelmed with the progress he has made since May,” Melissa wrote to Dr. Governale. “I am so thankful and sincerely wish every child with special needs could be seen in your wonderful dental clinic.”

Andrew’s story is just one of the many miracles taking place at the Pediatric Dental Center each day thanks to the UF College of Dentistry, the Healthcare Network and NCEF, the grants arm of the Naples Winter Wine Festival. For more information on how you can change the life of a child, contact the Healthcare Network at 239-658-3313 ( or NCEF at 239-658-3113 (