Early risers turned away when free dental clinic reaches capacity

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by Jordan Green

Uninsured people with unattended dental problems find that even getting up at the crack of dawn on a Saturday morning is too late to access free dental care.

Sandra Baker and her daughter Cassandra Ford navigated the parking lot at the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds before dawn on the second day of the free dental clinic, making their way past a barbecue truck idling outside a volunteer check-in to the entrance of the Annex.

Baker had hoped to get help for gum disease, which afflicts her with toothaches.

When they reached the patient reception area in the Annex a 6 a.m., a volunteer poked his head out the door and reiterated a message already plastered on the windows in handwritten signs in English and Spanish.

“If you don’t have an orange wristband, they will not be seeing you,” he said. “They are full to capacity.”

About a dozen people huddled in the frigid cold, coming to grips with the realization that they were too late.

The flier for services — including teeth-cleaning, fillings, extractions and partial denture construction — at the clinic held on Nov. 14 and 15 advertised doors opening at 6 a.m. But patients hoping to take advantage of the first-come, first-serve services would have been advised to read the fine print: “Plan to arrive early. Most people begin forming lines around midnight. Please bring any required medicines, water and other items you would need while waiting.”

Ford and her mother were disappointed to be turned away.

“It should be a week-long process,” Ford said. “If you can’t make it Friday because you’ve got to get to work, you would think you’d be all right getting up at 4:30 or 5 on Saturday morning.”

Baker, who is uninsured, said she hasn’t seen a dentist in two years. She simply hasn’t been able to afford to get care. She said when she gets her tax return next year she’ll probably look for an affordable dentist.

Many patients, who came from as far away as Charlotte, Fayetteville and southern Virginia, took the flier’s advice to heart. Dr. Tony Porter, one of the principal organizers, said he found two patients waiting when he arrived on Nov. 13 to begin setup. By 5 p.m. that day there were more than 50.

“Some people brought tents, and we’re accustomed to people camping,” Porter said. “But it was so cold we actually let them inside here. This is a skating rink, so it wasn’t all that warm.”

On the first day, volunteers quickly registered 850 people, Porter said. At 4 p.m., they registered another hundred.

“We expected a thousand people,” he said. “What surprised me was how many were here so early.”

The two-day clinic cost $75,000 to put on, about two-thirds of which was covered by a grant from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust. Organized by the NC Dental Society, the effort utilized 300 professional volunteers, including dentists, dental assistants, hygienists and nurses, and more than 500 community volunteers who served as greeters and escorts.

While no patients were turned away based on where they lived, Porter said that considering that financial and volunteer support came from the Winston-Salem area the organizers wanted to focus on Forsyth County. He discouraged publicity in Guilford County prior to the clinic, but said a group of dentists in Greensboro are raising funds and organizing volunteers for a similar undertaking.

Porter, who grew up and attended high school in Forsyth County, said he has been volunteering for mobile free dental clinics for years. Up until now, the Dental Society had only held clinics in small communities, where there are fewer safety-net services. This is the first free clinic the dentists offered in Winston-Salem.

Angela Jackson was one of the lucky patients. Jackson’s number was 611, and when the clinic reopened for the second day the 580th patient was receiving care. She came to have four teeth extracted. Like many others she had been neglecting her teeth because she didn’t have the money to pay for care.

“As I was told each tooth they extract was close to $230 or even as much as $300,” Jackson said, “so that can get expensive.”

Dental problems cause discomfort, Porter said, but left untreated they can become severe over time.

“If you’ve got a broken tooth, it’s going to bother you,” he said. “Any bad tooth that’s not pulled or cavity that’s not filled can invite bacteria. If it gets infected it’s going to become more and more uncomfortable. If it continues to go untreated, it can lead to septicemia, where the infection gets into the blood stream. That can be fatal.”

Huddled in overcoats and scarves, about 50 patients sat in the stands at 7 a.m. on the second day, waiting for their numbers to be called as youth hockey players ran the ice on the rink below.

Samantha Calamari, a first year pre-med student at Wake Forest University, signed up as a volunteer to greet patients at the Annex.

“I didn’t have healthcare for awhile,” she said. “A teeth cleaning can mean so much. It meant a lot to me when my family was going through a rough patch. Not having clean teeth or having dental problems is hard.”

Any discussion of healthcare on a larger social level is freighted with a certain level of controversy, Calamari said.

“I personally believe everybody should have healthcare,” she said. “I definitely think Obamacare is a step in the right direction. Everybody should have access. You shouldn’t have to wait in line.”

And yet here she was inviting another person in from the cold every five minutes or so with a cheerful greeting, only to inform them that they could not receive care. “A lot of people are confused by the fact that we can’t see people,” Calamari said. “These people need this dentistry care so bad. I have to tell them: ‘You need a wristband.’ The fact is that we’re only seeing a thousand people. But we do have breakfast.”

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