ORANGE – Mimi Morales, 7, seemed to recover from a July root canal in only a few days, so her family expected no further treatment when they brought her back to Children’s Dental Group in Anaheim last week after learning of an outbreak of serious dental infections there.
Instead, on Sunday, her father and grandparents waited anxiously at Children’s Hospital of Orange County as the second-grader from Orange underwent surgery to remove infected jaw bone and three permanent teeth that had yet to grow in.
“The doctor said he removed as much bone as he could without disfiguring her,” her grandmother, also named Mimi Morales, said from the girl’s bedside at CHOC on Monday afternoon. “Look at this poor baby, what she’s going through just because of a tooth. I’m just flabbergasted that we’re even here.”
Mimi is one of 20 children who underwent baby tooth root canals, or pulpotomies, at Children’s Dental Group in recent months who have developed suspected mycobacterial infections. Initial testing has implicated the office’s water system, which has been shut down and must be replaced.
Her grandmother said the little girl will likely need months of powerful antibiotics that could damage her hearing. She won’t be able to get dental implants to replace her missing teeth until she’s fully grown, at 18.
According to the county’s Health Care Agency, the children’s symptoms appeared 15 to 85 days after the pulpotomies. In a similar previous outbreak of mycobacterial infection in a dental clinic, incubation periods lasted up to nine months, the agency said.
Morales, 57, said she’s fearful that parents might not realize their children are ill and require immediate care. Since April 1, an estimated 500 children have undergone the procedure and should be examined, public health officials said.
Morales said Mimi had a fever the day of the root canal that went away with Tylenol. She felt sore for a few days and then later said she could feel a bump in her mouth, which Morales thought was a cold sore.
“My silver tooth, when I chewed, it hurt,” Mimi recalled on Monday. “When I brushed my teeth, blood came out.”
But Morales said Mimi stopped complaining about discomfort and she knew nothing of the outbreak until she happened to catch a snippet of TV news while at work more than a week ago.
In an abundance of caution, she decided to bring Mimi to the dental clinic last Monday.
“That’s why I’m worried there are people out there and their kids seem fine,” Morales said. “They have no symptoms. They may have seen the news and said, ‘Thank God my kid’s fine,’ and meanwhile it’s eating away at your bone, your jaw.”
Morales said when she brought Mimi back she had not been contacted by the clinic. She said employees there told her they were still in the process of notifying families.
Sam Gruenbaum, CEO of the company that owns the clinic, did not respond to a request for comment Monday but said last week that screenings of children were ongoing.
“We appreciate our patients coming in,” he said in an email.
Morales said at the follow-up appointment, the clinic immediately referred her to an oral surgeon who removed the baby molar with the root canal last Thursday. The family was then sent to CHOC where Mimi was admitted.
Mimi’s mouth and right cheek are so swollen that it’s difficult for her to speak, but she said she wants to go home and get back to school.
Mimi’s father, Zack Morales, 25, said he’s still processing the shock of his daughter’s ordeal.
“Thank God for my mom having the common sense to see this on the news and connect the dots,” he said. “That’s my baby. I told her last night I wish I could have gone through the pain instead of her.”
Morales said after Mimi recovers from the infection, she will need extensive dental work, including bone grafting in order to receive dental implants.
“She’s a beautiful little girl. I want to make sure her teeth are taken care of,” she said.