Dental duty: Local woman invents, markets toothbrush for long-term care patients

Saturday, January 1, 2011
Mary Prince, left, and daughter Cara Trankler, of Prince Dental, created the Plak-Vac suction toothbrush (Kristin Eberts)

This story is one of several that appear in the January edition of TBY Magazine, inserted in the Monday, Jan. 3 issue of the Southeast Missourian.

As a former dental assistant, Mary Prince of Jackson has always been interested in oral hygiene. When she noticed declining oral health among her nursing home patients, she invented the Plak-Vac, a suction toothbrush designed for long-term care patients who can no longer brush their own teeth.

"When they would come back after being in that situation for a few months, we saw their condition go way downhill -- there was plaque, the gum lines were swollen and red, there was decay -- all things they didn't have when they were taking care of themselves," says Prince, now oral care director of Prince Dental. She visited several nursing homes and found that most oral care routines consisted only of a swab of the mouth because the health care providers feared aspiration -- but a swab does not remove plaque.

"Gum infection is the most serious thing," says Prince. "If cavities are not taken care of, you could lose a tooth. But a cavity is not life-threatening -- gum infections are life-threatening."

According to Prince, gum infections can lead to bloodstream infections, which can be fatal. Bacteria in the bloodstream can also increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, kidney failure and diabetes. Aspiration can lead to pneumonia, and gum infections even interfere with cancer treatments. Prince adds that because more seniors are keeping their natural teeth rather than wearing dentures, the need for proper oral care in nursing homes has become more acute.

"I used suction at the dentist's office every day," says Prince. "I thought, why couldn't we have suction under the toothbrush?" Prince couldn't find a product like that on the market, and when her friend suggested she invent one, she did. She introduced the Plak-Vac suction toothbrush 25 years ago and began remarketing it this fall, focusing on long-term care facilities. Prince's daughter, Cara Trankler, works as her marketing director. The two partner with St. Louis-based Trademark Medical to market the product.

"The suction toothbrush looks like a regular toothbrush except the bristles are in a horseshoe shape and it hooks up to a wall suction," Prince explains. "It's for patients who can't get up and do their own oral care, whether they're paralyzed from an accident or stroke, they can't swallow properly or any other reasons they're not able to get out of bed."

Health Care Equipment and Supply carries the Plak-Vac at its five locations, including Jackson and Perryville, Mo. The product is also being used by nursing homes in Southeast Missouri and as far as Connecticut and Texas. The oral care system accompanying the toothbrush includes packets of mouthwash and foam swabs -- Prince recommends swabbing with mouthwash instead of toothpaste, as toothpaste foam is hazardous to patients lying in bed or with difficulty swallowing. In the future, Prince says she might look into flossing aides to accompany the Plak-Vac.

"Continue brushing and flossing if you possibly can," Prince advises all seniors. "Make sure you try to see a dentist. Those tips are the very best. If you can avoid gum infections, you'll be in good shape."

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