Patients, volunteers grateful for free dental clinic

At 2 p.m. Friday, Tyrone Langley of Charlotte walked out of the Charlotte Convention Center with a brand-new “partial” – two new teeth in an acrylic base, replacing one painful tooth a dentist had just extracted, and one that had come out nearly a year before.

He’d been in pain since then, off and on, and without the 36-hour free dental clinic going on through 6 p.m. Saturday, “I’d have just kept dealing with it, I guess...This is a blessing. A God-given blessing.”

A few yards away, Matt Hotelling of Drake Laboratories was pulling teeth – but these came out of a tray, marked B3, the code for their particular color. Hotelling took two of the fabricated teeth and nestled them into a red-gum-colored base creating another partial. He noted the gap between the two front ones, requested by the patient. That’s a diastema: “Like a Madonna space,” said Hotelling, with a smile.

“These dental professionals feel privileged to do this,” said Dr. Evan Miller, event co-chair of the N.C. Missions of Mercy clinic, the third in Charlotte since 2011. “The people who come here (for care), they’ve got no alternative. They appreciate (dental workers) stepping into that gap for them.”

Miller estimated roughly 900 workers – dentists, dental assistants and hygenists – plus some 200 medical workers doing screenings and other volunteers would pitch in, with about 100 dental chairs available and the Carolinas HealthCare System’s MED-1 mobile unit on-site for oral surgeries. “And people are still walking through the door (to volunteer).”

Miller says people had begun to line up outside by 8 a.m. Thursday for the clinic, which didn’t open until 6 a.m. Friday. Langley said he came at about 5:30 p.m. Thursday to get one of the numbered wristbands.

By midafternoon Friday, about 2,200 wristbands had been given out, and the first 1,300 people had been ushered into the registration area. From there, they went to medical screenings, X-rays and dental triage, to determine whether they could be treated and if so, what treatment they needed. Patients with hypertension, for example, must be treated in a hospital setting instead.

Volunteer Ramona Conley signed up to help two months ago. She said she knows the need for dental care is great. It still surprised her to hear people say they’d driven here from Myrtle Beach, and that one person had to have six teeth pulled.

Six? Try 14: That’s the biggest number volunteer Kathy Peter saw. One guy, 14 extractions.

“Some extraction cases we see,” said Miller, “there’s an entire arch (the whole upper or lower jaw) that’s not salvageable ... Or people can be in intense pain with one tooth, with no relief. We see a lot of that here.”

You also see a lot of emotion, he said. “Patients get up and hug just about every dentist, just about every time. Huge, hearty hugs. Their pain is over.”

That’s what was bringing Kathy Peter back for a second shift within 24 hours. “You walk through the waiting room and they’ve been here for 24 hours. Come on. I can gut it out. Come on.”

For additional details or to volunteer, go to www.ncmom-charlotte.com.