School of Dentistry ready to serve patients with special needs

At the ribbon-cutting event for the Phil and Karen Hunke Special Care Clinic are, left to right: Andrea Marks, MBA, CPA; Micaela Gibbs, DDS, MHA; Jennifer Farrell, DDS, DABSCD; Peter Loomer, DDS, PhD, MBA; Karen Hunke; Phil Hunke, DDS; State Sen. José Menéndez; Rhonda Stokley, DDS; Suman Challa, BDS, MPH; and Gary Guest, DDS.


Trish Guerra shared the questions she is often asked when trying to schedule a routine dental appointment for her 11-year-old son Brian, who is diagnosed with Down syndrome.

“Will he sit in the chair? Will he open his mouth? I don’t know. It depends on his mood that day,” said Guerra. “Most offices tell me right away that they won’t be able to accommodate him.”

Trish Guerra and her son, Brian, wait in the clinic’s reception space.

Guerra said that most parents can schedule their child’s dental appointment in one or two calls, but for her it can take 10 to 12 because most dental offices don’t have the time in their schedules or training to acclimate a patient like Brian.

Situations like Guerra’s are more common than many may realize. According to a report by the National Council on Disability, “dental care is often more difficult to find than any other type of service for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”

This fact, among others, is why The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio School of Dentistry celebrated the opening of its Phil and Karen Hunke Special Care Clinic, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Feb. 7. The clinic, named for San Antonio-area philanthropists who provided seed money for the renovation project, will provide comprehensive dental care for adults and children with intellectual, developmental, cognitive or physical disabilities, and those with complex medical conditions.

Meeting patients where they are

The layout of the clinic was purposely designed for accessibility for individuals with mobility challenges. From arrival to departure, patients and their caregivers will find wide corridors outfitted with hand railings and wheelchair bumpers. Spacious doorways provide barrier-free movement and parking near the clinic’s entrance is available for those with limited mobility.

Each treatment room is tailored for optimal patient comfort and privacy. Individuals and their caregivers are easily accommodated in the extra-large rooms, which feature adjustable lighting, sound-dampening walls, large screens and sliding barn doors.

Additionally, a multi-sensory room known as the “Zen Den,” offers patients a tranquil space to alleviate anxiety and take a break during treatment if needed.

Jennifer Farrell, DDS, DABSCSD.

“We are celebrating with thousands of patients who no longer have to go through the arduous process of finding a dentist,” said Inaugural Director Jennifer Farrell, DDS, DABSCSD, during the clinic’s grand opening event.

“Patients must be met where they are when it comes to the delivery of dental care. Yes, we will provide tailored dental treatment in this clinic, but we will also dance, play, talk about video games and share pictures of our pets with our patients. …It will be awesome,” she said.

Farrell brings more than 30 years of experience providing dental care to patients with disabilities.

“Brian is in his element at this clinic,” said Guerra, who is also a School of Dentistry employee.  “It’s on his level with the resources that he needs, with the right people. It’s safe, it’s friendly, it’s normalized a little piece of my life and that’s a breath of fresh air.”

Training and research opportunities

“As few as 10% of dentists treat patients with special needs and only one in four [dental] students had experiences working with them,” said Texas Senator José Menéndez who referenced a national survey of general dentists during the ribbon-cutting.

“This clinic will change these statistics. This clinic will not be another dentist’s office, but a cornerstone of our community,” he said.

Between flossing, 10-year-old Scarlett plays with Farrell’s dental assistant Megan Leyva.

Dental and dental hygiene students, as well as residents, will gain invaluable experience by rotating through the special care clinic. This hands-on training will provide them with the necessary skills and expertise to proficiently manage treatment for patients with special needs upon graduation.

“Under the guidance of experienced faculty members, students will learn firsthand how to tailor dental care to meet the unique needs of each individual, reinforcing our school’s compassionate and inclusive approach to oral health care,” said School of Dentistry Dean Peter M. Loomer, DDS, PhD, MBA. “Through practical experiences and mentorship, our students will be confronted with their own personal biases and emerge as competent and empathetic dental professionals.”

Specialized continuing education programs will also be developed by the school for practicing dentists. The sessions will provide dentists with advanced techniques, best practices and strategies for addressing the unique needs of those with disabilities and medically complex conditions, enhancing their ability to deliver high-quality oral health care for all patients.

An analysis of the clinic’s treatment outcomes and patient experiences will fuel ongoing research initiatives that will enable the school to explore new techniques and approaches to address the varying needs of individuals. By leveraging that information, the school proposes it will advance knowledge in specialized dental care, ultimately enhancing the quality of care provided to this underserved population globally.

Ready to serve

Brian Guerra (left) and his new friend Scarlett play next to the clinic’s bubble wall.

The special care clinic is currently scheduling appointments.

A typical first appointment at the clinic includes a comprehensive oral evaluation, X-rays, a cleaning, fluoride application, personalized instructions for home oral hygiene care and nutritional guidance. The attending dentist will also develop a tentative plan for ongoing care. Depending on the patient’s tolerance, the appointment can take between one and two hours.

“Word is out,” said Megan Leyva, one of the clinic’s dental assistants. “We are scheduling appointments for patients from all over Texas and as far away as Del Rio, El Paso and Dallas. That’s how much people need this kind of care — they are willing to drive for it and I’m so excited to welcome them.”

“I think we have a great team,” said Phil Hunke, DDS, during the ribbon-cutting.  “I love this school and I’m blessed to be part of this clinic’s creation.”

The Phil and Karen Hunke Special Care clinic accepts Medicaid for qualified patients under the age of 21 and select dental insurances. Third-party financing options are available for patients requiring a payment plan.

For more information about becoming a patient, visit or call 210-56-SERVE (210-567-3783).

Share This Article!