Patients traveled from hours away, arriving in the wee hours of the night to camp out in hammocks, tents and folding lawn chairs and wait for the free dental clinic to open. But despite rows of dental chairs filling the basketball court at Western Carolina University, manned by nearly 20 dentists and hundreds of hygienists, assistants and volunteers, there was still no way to get to everybody.
“I’m probably going to have to turn away at least 100 today,” said Bill Blaylock, director of Missions of Mercy.
The mobile clinics offer free dental care, such as cleanings, tooth pulls and filling repairs to anybody who shows up. On average, the work that someone gets done through Missions of Mercy would cost them $500 at a private clinic. The patients that arrive at the doorstep of the roving clinic simply can’t afford to pay for that type of work.
The downturn in the economy hasn’t helped the state of dental care either.
“These people can’t pay,” Blaylock said. “The problem is that recently a lot of people have lost their good paying jobs that had dental benefits — they have to turn to us.”
Missions of Mercy does a circuit of North Carolina, stopping at a half-dozen sites from the coast to the mountains. The program comes once a year to Jackson County, the furthest west it goes, bringing with it a mobile x-ray unit, a group of traveling dentists and all the support staff necessary to set up a makeshift, large-scale dental office.
While local dentists often volunteer at each site, Blaylock said he was disappointed with the turnout from local dentists around Cullowhee.
One of the volunteers was Audrey Jarrell, who spent two days molding partial dentures for people with missing teeth. Jarrell has been a dental technician for 14 years and has gone “on tour” with Missions of Mercy for the past three years. She pays out of pocket for gas to drive to the sites from Lenoir and for a hotel to stay at when she arrives but said it’s still worth it.
“I don’t know this patient; I might get to see her tomorrow; I might not,” said Jarrell as she held the denture she was working on. “But I will have done a wonderful thing to help this patient.”
The clinic in Cullowhee attracted hundreds of patients but paled in comparison to the some of the clinics in the larger urban areas. In Charlotte, 2,500 people were in line on the first day, and 300 or so dentists worked in shifts for 36 straight hours on patients’ teeth. In coming weeks, the clinic will be in Fayetteville, then Salisbury in September.
The long lines the clinic is seeing points to one thing: a failing dental care system that can’t provide the basic needs of residents. Blaylock said many people put off going to the dentist until they are in a state of pain from an infection or damaged tooth.
“This is stop-gap measure; it’s not a health care delivery system,” Blaylock said. “We’re trying to come in and get people out of pain until they can get further help.”
But some don’t and rely entirely on meeting up with the roving clinic to get any sort of relief. Limits are placed the amount of care someone can receive, and a triage system is in place to make sure a large number of patients can be seen.
Lydia Faust, a 55-year-old woman from Salisbury, traveled all the way to Cullowhee and arrived at 12:30 a.m. to camp out and ensure a spot at the front of the line when the clinic opened. One of her teeth had an abscess and needed attention. Another one of her teeth was chipped and needed a filling.
“They filled it in and made it look new,” Faust said. “I can smile again.”
But Faust still needs work done and is planning on attending the upcoming clinic in Salisbury.
But for Joel Smith, 30, from Bryson City, the day was not going so well. Smith was told he would most likely not be able to receive a much-needed denture to fill the four-tooth gap in the front of his mouth. Smith lost the teeth in a fistfight more than decade ago and has gone without a denture since his last one broke years ago.
He said the unsightly gaping hole in the front of his mouth has kept him from getting a job, so he is left uninsured and without and income. The missing teeth have also taken a toll on him psychologically.
“I’m just tired of not being able to smile,” Smith said. “I just hate looking at myself in the mirror. I look ugly to myself.”