TEXARKANA -- Almost nothing hurts worse than a toothache. Where does a sufferer turn who cannot afford treatment? In Texarkana on Aug. 5 and 6, many needy people with dental problems got the help they needed at a free, two-day dental clinic held in a high school gymnasium.
Christus St. Michael Health System sponsored the clinic along with the Texas Dental Association. People from the Arkansas and Texas sides of the state line treated.
And they came. In droves. Jim Pomeroy, vice president of mission integration at Christus St. Michael, said, "It succeeded beyond our expectations. I expected about 450, and we ended up treating 530. It broke all kinds of records in terms of the number of patients per dentist."
Pomeroy spearheaded the event along with St. Edward parishioners and dentist Dr. Milburn Haynes and his wife Mary Catherine. About 100 volunteers from St. Edward helped the clinic run smoothly. Volunteers from other churches also helped, and volunteer dentists came from several cities.
Haynes has always had a heart for helping people. In addition to the free clinic, he regularly treats needy patients at his office who are referred to him by two Texarkana agencies.
"There is a huge need," he said. "I like to help people."
Dr. and Mrs. Haynes agreed to be co-chairmen of the free clinic, and they started planning it a year ago.
"I was talking one day with Dan Ford about the fact that a lot of people were coming to the emergency room with dental problems. We started thinking about how to get help for them," Haynes said. (At that time Ford held the job that Pomeroy now holds at Christus St. Michael.)
At the free clinic, Haynes mostly worked on people needing a root canal. Other volunteer dentists -- 26 in all -- did extractions, fillings and even made false teeth.
Mary Catherine said a patient who especially touched her heart was a girl from St. Edward Church.
"She was missing a tooth in front, and she needed a lot of dental work. They built a tooth for her and also put new surfaces for all her front teeth."
The next day the girl came up to Mary Catherine at Mass and told her proudly, "I put my picture on Facebook!" She was radiant.
"It took us a whole day to get ready," she said. "Then we were back at 5 a.m. Friday morning and people were waiting outside. They had been there since 1 a.m. And for the Saturday clinic, they started waiting Friday night at 11 p.m."
In preparation for the clinic, 20 dental chairs had to be set up, along with other dental equipment. A play area was prepared for patients' children. The volunteers did everything they could to help the clinic run smoothly.
And run smoothly it did, helped on the second day by hospital chaplains Father Lawrence Chellaian and Father Felix Okey Alaribe who visited with the patients, providing a comforting presence for them. On both days, the clinic opened at 6 a.m. and continued all day.
Pomeroy said, "The dentists really stayed right at it. When a doctor took a break, the support people -- five roaming dentists -- would take over so no chair needed to be empty."
St. Edward Church in Texarkana, Ark., and Sacred Heart Church in Texarkana, Texas, as well as some of the other large churches in town put notices in their bulletins -- the extent of the advertising. Yet so many patients showed up that at the end of the second day, 200 people had to be turned away. Mary Catherine Haynes noted that $438,691 worth of free dental work was done.
"This is the way it was meant to happen: the community helping the community," Dr. Haynes said.
No one who witnessed the influx of eager patients at the Texarkana free dental clinic could ever again doubt the desperate need for free dental care in both Texas and Arkansas. Karen DiPippa, director of Westside Free Medical Clinic in Little Rock, a Catholic Charities clinic, observed, "Based on the calls we receive at the office of Westside Free Medical Clinic, we continue to have a large gap in dental coverage for persons without dental insurance ... we are able to assist approximately 100 patients a year with dental assistance ... However, this care just touches the surface of the need for dental care in Pulaski County. In the rural areas, the options for care are fewer and the need as large."
DiPippa sees a great need for education and preventive care.
Paul Wilkerson of River City Ministry in North Little Rock and treasurer for the Arkansas Association of Charitable Clinics agrees with DiPippa.
"Lack of free or charitable dental services continues to drive our clinics to provide more dental services than ever before," he said. "At our own clinic here in North Little Rock, once or twice a year we will track our calls requesting services, and the calls for dental services are at least double all other services combined. As much as the local clinics do, there remains a large group of folks who have no alternative."
Evan Breedlove, executive director of Good Samaritan Clinic in Fort Smith, also sees the need for more dentists to donate their time and services.
"These individuals are not only losing their jobs, they are also losing their health insurance," he said. "If they do not have health insurance they surely do not have dental insurance. We see patients every day that need dental care that at this time we cannot provide for them. Many of these patients have abscessed teeth. The only thing we can do is refer them to the Fort Smith Community Dental Service. ... However, there is a six-month waiting period. To have to tell a patient with a hurting tooth that they will have to wait six months is a hard message to deliver to a patient."
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