2019 Mid-Maryland Mission of Mercy dental event. Photo courtesy of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington.
.- A free dental clinic hosted recently by Catholic Charities of Washington, D.C., offered preventive and emergency dental care to more than 1,000 patients in need.
“The majority were uninsured, and probably had not seen a dentist in years,” said Deacon Jim Nalls, director of Family, Parish and Community Outreach for Catholic Charities of Washington.
Sept. 13-14 marked the fifth Mid-Maryland Mission of Mercy, hosted by Catholic Charities, the University of Maryland School of Public Health and the Maryland State Dental Association Foundation.
Hundreds of patients waited in line overnight at the University of Maryland’s Xfinity Center in College Park.
One woman, 69-year-old Linda Frazier, stood in line for the clinic beginning at 6:40 p.m. the night before.
Frazier told the Catholic Standard that she was suffering from a painful tooth and had not received dental care in two years, since the last Mission of Mercy in Mid-Maryland. She said she cannot afford insurance and was grateful to have the opportunity to receive treatment through Catholic Charities.
Maryland does not include full dental coverage for patients on Medicaid, so low-income individuals and people without insurance often find themselves struggling to get the dental care they need.
Mission of Mercy originated in Virginia nearly 20 years ago, when Dr. Terry Dickinson, former executive director of the Virginia Dental Association, saw a major unmet need for dental care among low-income patients, seniors, and people with disabilities.
The first small event was held in rural Virginia with a group of dentists from the Virginia Dental Association. “It was widely successful,” Nalls told CNA. “The need was huge. People lined up literally overnight to get help.”
Today, he said, 42 other states have adopted the Mission of Mercy model, creating free dental clinics with volunteer dentists and support personnel to provide services.
Catholic Charities of Washington, D.C., heard about the clinics and wanted to start one of their own. They began in 2013.
This year, the clinic treated 1089 people, an increase of about 20% from the last time the event was held.
The Mission of Mercy event required hundreds of volunteers to run, including professional volunteers – dentists, hygienists, dental assistants, and x-ray technicians – as well as general volunteers, who greeted patients, registered them, and directed them to the correct location.
Patients received both medical and dental screenings, as well as panoramic dental x-rays, Nall said. Volunteer dentists offered fillings, tooth extractions, cleanings, partial dentures, and crowns, among other services.
Dr. Mel Weissburg, who volunteered to do endodontic and root canal work, said the clinic’s dental care can change the lives of the patients being served.
“They are embarrassed because they have missing or cavities in their front teeth,” Weissburg told the Catholic Standard. “They get cleaned up, they get filled, and now they can smile. They can smile when they’re working, they can get a job. The socio-economic impact on that patient and their family, and their children and our society…goes a long way.”
Nalls said patients are extremely appreciative to be receiving care they otherwise could not afford.
“With tears in their eyes, they were grateful,” he said. “It’s a wonderful event. That’s why the volunteers keep coming back, it’s so rewarding to see the immediate response of the people that you’re taking care of, and that the need is so great…Why else would you sleep on a sidewalk overnight?”
One volunteer, Teresa Villanueva, said this is her third time volunteering at the event. She told the Catholic Standard that she is touched to see the suffering of those who do not have insurance.
“Every time they do these events, my heart is joyful,” she said.
Nalls said dental care is sometimes undervalued, both by individuals and the health care system in general.
“There’s no money in the Affordable Care Act for dental services,” he noted. “Dentistry is the red-headed stepchild of the health care industry. It’s treated as if it’s optional or something.”
In reality, he said, dental care is a “very important part of our holistic health” and can cause severe pain and difficulty functioning if problems are left untreated.
With the high turnout showing a continuing need for affordable dental care, Nalls said Catholic Charities will continue to hold Mission of Mercy events in the future.
“Hopefully, we won’t have to sometime soon – if the support system changes and Medicaid covers adult dental, we won’t need to do these,” he said. “But until they do, there’ll be a huge need, and we’ll continue to try to address it as best we can.”