Hundreds relieved of their pain at a free dental clinic

Charles Nelson entered the Charlotte Convention Center late Thursday with two wisdom teeth causing him pain.

He arrived 5 1/2 hours before the opening of a massive, two-day free dental clinic to make sure an oral surgeon would remove the teeth and rid him of the agony he’d endured for six months. “It was hard to eat and hard to talk,” he said.

Nelson is a 31-year-old single dad from Denver, N.C., and a cook at a Zaxby’s restaurant. He can’t afford dental coverage, which is why he joined about 800 other patients on Friday at the N.C. Missions of Mercy clinic, a free portable dental program of the North Carolina Dental Society.

At least 500 dentists, dental hygienists and dental assistants are volunteering this weekend, along with 700 community volunteers.

The clinic had plenty of spots available on Friday for people needing teeth pulled, as about half the number of patients had shown up for dental services compared with 2014, the last year the clinic provided care at the convention center.

The lower attendance stumped clinic volunteers. “I don’t even have a guess,” Dr. Evan Miller, an endodonist who co-chairs this weekend’s effort, said at the clinic Friday afternoon. Other dentists said they were similarly puzzled.

For the hundreds of patients showing up Friday and Saturday, the clinic helps eliminate pain that they couldn’t otherwise afford to handle. The clinic is open 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

“To have something like this for people like me who work and try to make ends meet, but can’t make ends meet is, honestly, a miracle,” Nelson said at 1:30 p.m., moments after he had his teeth extracted in the Carolinas Medical Center Med-1 mobile operating room in the convention center.

This weekend’s clinic marks the fourth appearance at the convention center by N.C. Missions of Mercy.

The Charlotte clinics are the largest and most comprehensive held in North Carolina by N.C. Missions of Mercy. Nearly 6,000 patients have received $3.5 million of dental work over the three previous visits, Miller said.

Dr. John Nale of Carolina Center for Oral and Facial Surgery performed six full-mouth extractions on Friday morning, “and I was one of six oral surgeons in there.”

Carolina Pharmacy Group donated all of the analgesics and antibiotics for patients.

“It’s important to give back to our community,” managing partner Chirag Patel said. “Without an opportunity for us to be out here, the patients wouldn’t have this available otherwise. Everybody (volunteering at the clinic) is doing their part to help out.”

Ariel Saunders, a 25-year-old certified nursing assistant from Raleigh, also endured severe pain from two teeth before she had them extracted on Friday. She arrived at the convention center at 10 p.m. Thursday, and waited with others for the program to start.

“It’s a blessing,” Saunders said moments after she had the teeth extracted. “They are a blessing to take time away from their families to help us, and I thank them from the bottom of my heart. I am forever grateful. I really am.”

Nelson said he was so touched by the difference the clinic makes in people’s lives that he will volunteer in next year’s effort.

“Whatever I can do to pay you back, I will,” he told Miller. “I want to pay it forward.”

Joe Marusak: 704-358-5067, @jmarusak