How can a child die of toothache in the US?
When a 12-year-old boy lost his life as a result of an untreated tooth abscess in Maryland in 2007, his story revealed how hard it can be for people on low incomes to get the dental care they are entitled to.
By Mary Otto
Jun 16 2017
On 11 January 2007, about 30 miles from Baltimore, a boy named Deamonte Driver – a normally energetic child – came home from school not feeling well. “He kept complaining of a headache,” his mother, Alyce Driver, said. His grandmother took him to Southern Maryland Hospital Center, not far from semi-rural Brandywine, where his grandparents’ red-and-white trailer home stood in the patchy shade of a grove of trees. He was given medicines for headache, sinusitis and a dental abscess. The following day, a Thursday, Deamonte went back to school.
“That Friday he was worse,” his mother said. “He couldn’t talk.” She took him to Prince George’s County Hospital Center, where Deamonte received a spinal tap and a CT scan. “They said he had meningitis,” said Alyce. The child was rushed to the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington DC, where he underwent emergency brain surgery. “They said the infection was on the left side of his brain. They had to remove a bone.”
On Saturday, Deamonte started having seizures. “The infection came back,” Alyce said. “They had to go back in.”
Deamonte required brain surgery again, and this time the abscessed tooth was removed too. It was a molar on the upper-left side of his mouth: a so-called “six-year molar”, one of the first permanent teeth to erupt when baby teeth are shed, and particularly vulnerable to decay. This tooth was ruined, infected to the core. Bacteria from the abscess had spread to the boy’s brain. Alyce remembered a doctor telling her: “This kid is fighting for his life.” Her world, which was fraught with struggle on the best of days (she had been coping with homelessness since leaving a violent relationship), seemed to fall apart.
The extended family gathered around Deamonte’s bed and appealed to heaven. They called upon Jesus and asked him to save the boy. “He slept for two days straight. I said, is my baby ever going to wake up?”
Finally, Deamonte opened his eyes.
After more than two weeks at Children’s National, he was moved to the nearby Hospital for Sick Children, where he began an additional six weeks of medical treatment. He received physical and occupational therapy, did schoolwork, and enjoyed visits from his mother, his brothers and teachers from his school.
Yet Deamonte’s eyes seemed to be weak, his mother said, and his complexion got darker. On Saturday 24 February, he refused to eat – but still seemed happy. He and his mother played cards and watched a show on television, lying together on his hospital bed. After she left him that evening, he called her and said: “Make sure you pray before you go to sleep.”
Next morning she got another call. Deamonte was unresponsive. Alyce found a ride back to the hospital.
“When I got there,” she said, “my baby was gone.”