After years of medical struggles and losing her teeth, Las Vegan Tonja Brauch said it was not people’s uncomfortable stares that hurt the most, but ugly comments aimed at her children.
"We've had neighbors that have said rude stuff about me to them, you know, said I was a hillbilly or a crackhead," said Brauch, who has five adopted children and two foster children.
Brauch, who has fostered 45 children over the last 25 years, said she was uncomfortable to smile or even speak.
"My little girls are still in elementary school so when I'd have to go to the school, it would be embarrassing to have to talk. I felt embarrassed not having my teeth," Brauch said.
Brauch, 54, will soon be able to smile again with a new set of dental implants. Canyon Oral and Facial Surgery is giving the foster mother and cancer survivor free dental implant surgery after she won their Smile Again contest.
Flores Family Dental is also providing restorative dental services, and BioHorizons Implant Systems donated the implants.
Brauch heard about the contest from one of her doctors. She was one of two winners among about 300 people who submitted their stories about needing help.
Brauch was first diagnosed with skin cancer in 1995. Since then, she's had a stroke, pancreatic surgery and spent six months in a coma and a year in a wheelchair. Doctors didn't think she'd survive, let alone walk again.
Saddled with medical bills, Brauch couldn’t afford regular dental care and began losing her teeth. By last year, all of her teeth either fell out or had to be removed to prevent infection.
Dental implants can cost as much as $15,000 and most insurance companies won't cover the procedure because it is considered cosmetic surgery.
"It's frustrating when you see people that need care and could use a service and you can't provide it because there's financial restrictions," said Jesse JJ Falk, a surgeon at Canyon Oral and Facial Surgery who is performing Brauch's dental procedure.
Falk said Brauch won the contest because of her compelling story of generosity in fostering children while battling cancer.
Brauch has been in remission from cancer for two years, and she can focus more now on restoring her oral health. Her jawbone is so diminished that regular dentures don't stay in place and she can't chew solid food.
"When you lose your teeth, the bone actually melts away. It's not being used; it just dissolves," Falk said.
Dental implants can help prevent the jawbone from further eroding by keeping it stimulated, Falk said.
It will take about five months to complete the implant process. But the experience with the surgeons and staff at Canyon Oral and Facial Surgery has already helped restore Brauch’s self-esteem.
"They treat you like you're somebody important," she said.