Smiles at free dental clinic reveal an ‘attitude of gratitude’
By Mark Wineka
SALISBURY — Bridget Williams was nervous — you could see it in the jumpiness of her right leg as she was lying back in the dental chair, ready to have four teeth pulled.
Her husband, Dwayne, stood nearby for moral support. He gave Bridget a pat and reassured her.
“She’s been a trooper,” Dwayne said Friday morning, before turning back to his wife and adding, “I’m right here, Babe.”
The couple had traveled from Denver, N.C., to the free Missions of Mercy dental clinic in Salisbury. The two-day clinic, an outreach program of the N.C. Dental Society, is set up to provide dental care for up to 800 patients. The clinic’s final day is today.
Close to 40 dental stations consumed the basketball floor in Catawba College’s Goodman Gymnasium, while the lobby was dedicated to patient processing and volunteer registration.
A classroom off the gym lobby was being used as a dental lab for making partial plates, and a section of bleachers was curtained off as a waiting room for patients being summoned to the gym floor for cleanings, fillings, extractions or bridgework. Part of the gym also served as a section for sterilizing dental equipment.
Each adult patient seen had an X-ray of his or her mouth taken in a mobile radiology unit outside the main gym doors. Those who needed root canals before repair work could be completed were sent first to Dr. Kathleen Boyd, whose office is nearby on Statesville Boulevard.
This sprawling clinic relies totally on volunteers — dentists, oral surgeons, lab specialists, hygienists, dental students, pharmacists and radiologists. That skilled fraternity doesn’t include some 275 community volunteers who shepherd the patients from station to station. Interpreters were on hand to help translate for Hispanic patients.
“It means the world,” said Dwayne Williams, who described his own first trip to a MOM clinic in Hickory as a life-changing experience. “I can’t describe what these people are doing. It’s probably not talked about enough.”
Audrey Lambert, a China Grove mother of 2-year-old twin daughters and a 7-year-old son with Down syndrome, said her husband represents the only income in their family while she stays at home with the children. They can’t afford dental insurance because they have to put the basic needs of their children first.
Waiting in the bleachers for her name to be called for two extractions, Lambert said she hadn’t been to a dentist in about 10 years. The left side of her mouth was sensitive to sweets and hot and cold temperatures. “It really kills me,” she said.
Having the free dental work available to her meant everything, Lambert said.
“If we were allowed to, I’d offer them a tip, because it saves me so much money,” she added.
Dr. Jim Dunkin, senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church, was inspired to do the first Salisbury MOM Clinic in 2013. His daughter, Christina, a dental student at the time, had volunteered at a clinic elsewhere and mentioned to her father that Salisbury needed to do one itself.
Dunkin soon enlisted the help of Salisbury dentist Dr. David Mayberry, and they became the chief coordinators for these first two MOM clinics, with big assists in fundraising and volunteer coordination from people such as Krista Woolly, executive director of the Community Care Clinic, and her husband the Rev. Rhodes Woolly, senior pastor at St. John’s Lutheran Church.
“To me, it’s like God’s love is palpable, anywhere you look,” Dunkin said Friday morning as the clinic settled into an efficient rhythm. “… David and I are probably sleeping better than we did last time.”
Dunkin praised Catawba College for its generous gift of offering the gymnasium facilities for free.
Many people traveled great distances and even set aside a couple of days to attend the clinic. Violet Sholar drove from Ashe County to have a couple of teeth filled. She found out about the Salisbury site while doing some online research into less expensive options for dental work. She recently lost her job.
“It’s a fabulous thing,” Sholar said. “There’s nothing close to us, and I wanted to catch it before it got bad and I lost a tooth.”
Sholar waited about two-and-a-half hours in line Thursday to receive an arm band that guaranteed her treatment Friday. She stayed some time with an aunt in Mocksville until the doors opened Friday.
Tamara Wallace knew from experience — this is the third MOM clinic she has attended in the state — that it was better to arrive a day early. She stayed overnight in a Salisbury hotel after traveling from Wendell, a town close to Raleigh.
Paying for a hotel room was still cheaper than paying for the three fillings she needed, Wallace said. She guessed she was like many other patients waiting in the gymnasium. She doesn’t qualify for Medicaid, is not old enough for Medicare, and she can’t afford dental insurance.
“You can’t go to the hospital,” Wallace said. “The hospital doesn’t care if your teeth hurt.”
Wallace said she appreciated the clinic, but she acknowledged it can be an aggravating, two- or three-day process.
“Do you know how cold it was yesterday?” she asked, recounting the rain and frigid temperature for people waiting in line just to receive an arm band Thursday. After her overnight stay in a hotel, Wallace said she was back in line at 5 Friday morning.
Krista Woolly and Dunkin said one of the keys to making this year’s MOM clinic operate smoother was the volunteer registration table operated by Cliff and Mary Ann DeMars of Roanoke, Va.
“We can’t pull teeth,” said Cliff DeMars, a retired postal worker, “but we can do this.”
The couple took a spreadsheet of all the dental, medical and community volunteers and created a digital database. They provided name tags with scannable barcodes, keeping track of everyone who helped. At the end of each day, Cliff DeMars can push a button and give the organizers all the statistics they need, such as how many people volunteered, what jobs they had and how many hours they put in.
Cliff and Mary Ann have been helping free dental clinics across the country in this capacity since 2000.
“The atmosphere here is very friendly,” Cliff said. “The people are here to help.”
Salisbury volunteer Nick Langdon spent Friday morning going between the rows of dental stations and holding up lettered signs to tell other volunteers across the gym when a dentist was ready for a new patient.
“X” meant an spot was open for a dentist making extractions. “F” meant fillings. “C” stood for cleanings.
“It’s wonderful to be able to volunteer for such an outstanding program,” Langdon said. “You can feel the attitude of gratitude. It’s a cliche, but it’s appropriate.”
Arey Grady of Kinston oversees the dental lab where partial plates are made for virtually all the MOM clinics. He and his wife have been to 39 of these clinics, where 2,037 plates or “appliances” have been made for patients.
“There’s no politics,” Grady said of why he likes to volunteer for the free clinics. “We’re here simply to help people.”
Audrey Jarrell, who works for the First Impressions lab in Lenoir, was meticulously repairing a plate Friday morning for a woman whose plate would flop out of her mouth as she talked.
She was adding two teeth and raising two others on the plate. When Jarrell saw it the first day, she marked the plate as a “very complex case,” but Jarrell was sure she could help.
“She will be walking out of here with something she can wear comfortably,” Jarrell said.
Andrew Blank, an East Rowan High graduate, Rockwell resident and dental student at East Carolina University, has volunteered his services at 10 of these MOM clinics. It’s this kind of work, helping those most in need, when you determine if dentistry is what you want to do as a career, Blank said. This kind of work is the real reward, he added.
Dental students from ECU and the University of North Carolina were assisting the two-day clinic.
Mayberry’s niece from Georgia, Dr. Tina Cox, was working next to her uncle both days. She graduated from dental school last May.
“I really wanted to do it,” Cox said of helping in Salisbury. She was required to get a temporary license to be able to work on N.C. patients.
Free massages were being offered on site, and volunteers have been fed on various days by Panera Bread, Livingstone College’s culinary arts program and Chick fil-A.
Just after 9 a.m. Friday, J.W. and Mary Spencer, a couple from Rocky Mount, already were finished at the clinic. Mary couldn’t speak too well because her mouth was still numb from three tooth extractions.
J.W. Spencer was all smiles after having his teeth cleaned. He said they had driven 243 miles to reach the clinic and spent the night in their car so they could be in line early Friday.
“I couldn’t do without it,” he said of the clinic. “It’s a blessing to the whole community — the whole state really.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.
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