University of Maryland, Catholic Charities offer free dental service in College Park

For her 24th birthday, Jacqueline Alvarado got three teeth pulled and a root canal.

Still, she was all smiles afterward. Her dentist had told her the dental work she needed would normally cost $5,000. The procedures on Sunday: free.

“My smile is priceless right now,” the College Park woman said. “This was the best birthday present I could ever receive.”

Alvarado was among nearly 850 people who waited hours for free cleanings, X-rays, cavity fillings, extractions and other dental services during the 2017 Mid-Maryland Mission of Mercy & Health Equity Festival this weekend.

The normal sounds of the Xfinity Center at the University of Maryland, College Park — sneaker squeaks, basketballs bouncing and student section cheers — were replaced by the din of dental drills. One hundred dentists’ chairs lined the covered hardwood. Dentists and hygienists from around the region spent the weekend doing about $1.5 million in dental work, organizers said.

More than 1,700 volunteers signed up for the event, organized by the University of Maryland School of Public Health’s Center for Health Equity, the Maryland State Dental Association and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington.

It was one of five such events in Maryland each year, officials said. The United Way of Central Maryland is hosting a similar pop-up event, its Project Homeless Connect, on Oct. 12 at the Baltimore Convention Center.

“We’re treating the symptoms,” said Deacon Jim Nalls, executive director of family, parish and community outreach at Catholic Charities. “This is not the solution. … We’re here to help people who need help.”

A line began forming outside the arena each night before the free clinic opened. Hundreds were turned away each day for lack of space.

With many patients coming in needing an array of procedures, organizers faced a tough call: Either try to treat everyone, or perform more extensive work on those who got there first. They chose the latter.

“We could’ve seen another 200 patients and done one tooth per person,” Nalls said. “We saw less people, but we did more dentistry per person.”

Still, he was happy with the results.

“That’s quite an accomplishment for three days — seeing 800 people and giving them a million dollars’ worth of dentistry,” Nalls said.

Stephen Thomas, director of the Center for Health Equity, said he was struck by the powerful sight of people waiting outside all night for dental care.

“Pain brings them here,” he said.

Volunteers gave health screenings and created electronic health records for patients, and pharmacists gave out antibiotics, ibuprofen and other medications after their procedures.

Organizers also offered flu vaccines, assistance with insurance and the state health care exchange, social services, legal counseling, mental health services, nutrition information and education — even haircuts provided by area barbers.

“This is health equity work in action,” Thomas said. “We’re not talking theory. We’re talking mud-on-your-boots. Get out and engage the very population falling through the safety net cracks.”

He paused, then added: “The safety net has cavities.”

The dentist’s chairs and equipment came in a tractor-trailer from America’s Dentist Care Foundation, program manager Zach Ioerger said.

The foundation takes the equipment to similar events across the country. The pop-up clinic takes about six to eight hours to set up and three or four to break down, Ioerger said, “depending on how much help we have.”

Dorothy Avent, 71, got an X-ray and filled out paperwork on Friday, then got back in line just after 5 a.m. Sunday to get two teeth pulled.

Avent said she was nervous about the operation at first. But she was highly complimentary of the dentist who did it.

“He was fantastic. I could’ve kissed him. He had my teeth out like that!” she said, snapping her fingers.

Vera Austin, a 56-year-old retired nurse, sat with gauze in her mouth as she waited for the Washington MetroAccess paratransit service to pick her up. She arrived at 4 a.m. to have two teeth pulled — and was all smiles more than six hours later.

“May Heaven smile upon this Mission of Mercy,” she said through the gauze. “It was quick and they’ve got it organized very well.”

Dr. Edna Hirsch, a semi-retired dentist who practiced in Havre de Grace for 16 years and is a faculty member at the University of Maryland dental school, has been volunteering at these events for five years.

“We live in the wealthiest country in the world and we lack general health care and general dental health care for the poor,” Hirsch said. “I’m giving back.”

Alvarado is already looking forward to paying back the free dental work by working at the next local Mission of Mercy event.

“Next year, or whenever they come back, I want to volunteer as a medical assistant,” she said.

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cmcampbell6

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