For those among us living in pain, the year-end festivities that make November and December memorable are lost amid anguish. Agonizing oral health conditions like severe tooth decay and infections can spoil the joyous occasion, sending thousands of Americans flocking to emergency rooms instead of family gatherings. Thousands more learn to simply live with the pain.
Because, unfortunately, dental care is the hidden health crisis in America. The effects go beyond the pain and social stigmatization we associate with tooth decay, impacting the overall health of Americans living on fixed incomes, or in rural communities. People suffering from oral health conditions are more likely to develop heart disease or cancer. They’re less likely to hold down jobs paying livable wages or providing dental insurance.
It’s a vicious cycle—but it’s preventable. And prevention is necessary. A healthy mouth leads to a healthy body and mind.
As 2018 came to a close, two stories show how a few dentists volunteering their time, a fully-equipped mobile clinic and a lot of heart can make life-changing impacts on people’s lives.
Joe could barely endure his favorite meal of the year.
He did more wincing than chewing during Thanksgiving dinner. Enjoying turkey was nearly impossible, so he turned his sight, and his mouth, to the one thing he could eat: mashed potatoes.
The tooth pain had lasted for weeks, becoming so constant, so severe, that it was all he could think about. Living in Astoria, Oregon, Joe subsists on a fixed retirement fund and social security and is unable to see a dentist regularly. When he called local dentists to set an appointment, he was told it would cost between $350 and $500 to extract the tooth.
That was more than he could afford, so during Thanksgiving dinner he gently chewed his meal of potatoes. He sat in extreme discomfort during his favorite meal of the year, trying to reconcile with the pain.
“When you get this old, you put up with the stuff life gives you,” Joe said. “I’ve had both knees replaced, both shoulders replaced. I’m used to pain.”
But when there’s relief available, he’s going to take it.
Less than a week after Thanksgiving, still in pain, he set an appointment with a Mobile Dental clinic in Hillsboro, Oregon, an hour and a half away. He’d previously been to a Mobile Dental clinic in Seaside, Oregon. After an extraction there, he felt immediate relief.
The volunteer dentist onsite extracted the tooth. Afterward, Joe thanked everyone at the clinic for all the help they’d provided. Next Thanksgiving, he’ll be able to enjoy turkey.
“They all do great work,” Joe said of the volunteers. “They are donating their time. They’re heroes.”
All she wanted for Christmas was to eat and smile again.
On a cold winter weekend just before Christmas, one of our clinic managers was looking for a dentist who could provide a few hours to help a patient who desperately needed dental services. Dr. Bryan and his assistant agreed to volunteer on short notice. Jillian needed extractions to receive her dentures from a specialist.
Jillian hopped in her car and headed for the clinic, but on the way her car broke down. Jillian called the clinic manager and explained through tears that she couldn’t come.
What happened next is not unusual for our highly committed and dedicated volunteers who donate their time. Dr. Bryan contacted Uber and paid for Jillian to be driven to the clinic. After extracting her teeth, the dental assistant then paid for Uber to drive Jillian home.
A Christmas wish come true. One that will stay with Jillian forever. A gift that eased physical pain and emotional sadness. It’s easy to take healthy teeth for granted, what they mean for our everyday lives, how they allow us to confidently express our happiness through a beaming smile. With the dental work completed, Jillian let loose a broad smile.
“Everyone has been unbelievably kind and helpful,” Jillian wrote in a note. “I will never forget their kindness.”
“I am a low-income senior, and without the help of the Mobile Dental van, I couldn’t have taken care of my many denture problems,” she wrote. “I am so thankful for their existence! Not only will I be able to eat properly, but I’ll be able to smile again, no longer ashamed of my teeth.”
As we enter 2019, keep your hearts set on people like Joe and Jillian because there’s so much that can be done. Here’s a quick peek at the impact volunteer dental professionals had on the lives of so many in 2018.
- 1,396 clinics held throughout the Pacific Northwest
- 19,000 people served
- $7 million worth of services
- 750 volunteers—maybe you were one!
- 16,717 dental volunteer hours
- 11 Mobile Dental RVs, each fully-equipped with two dental offices
- And the implementation of a new digital x-ray system