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Free dental services draw aching patients in droves to old Navy hospital ship 2-week program's appeal shows lack of access to care, dentist says


Denise Troutman hadn't seen a dentist for five years and had been in constant pain for the past eight months, which makes her typical of the hundreds of people who have found their way to an old Navy hospital ship to take advantage of a free medical and dental clinic.

When the organizers of the clinic opened their two-week program -- which ends tomorrow evening -- they were expecting their biggest job would be to provide immunizations, maybe thousands of them. It didn't happen; only dozens of children in need of shots have turned up so far. But the dental clinic has been turning away 60 or more people every day.

"This just confirms what we already knew: Access to dental care nationwide is very poor, and in Maryland it's particularly poor," Dr. John Gladden, one of the dentists working at the ship, said yesterday as he awaited the next wave of patients.

The ship is a World War II veteran named the Sanctuary, owned now by a nonprofit organization called Project Life. It's tied up at a fairly remote pier on Childs Street in Fairfield. Dr. Gladden, who works for the Baltimore County Health Department, was there in another role -- as a dentist in the Maryland National Guard.

For the past two weeks the Project Life group has worked in conjunction with the National Guard to provide free health services on board the ship. It's part of the regular National Guard training; 72 medical officers and enlisted troops have taken part. For the Sanctuary, it's the first step in what the Project Life people hope will be, eventually, a permanent health service on board.

The clinic was advertised through fliers and radio spots. Every morning, particularly as word of mouth began to spread, people began lining up as early as 8:30 a.m., even though the clinic doesn't open until noon.

"We're not getting destitute people," said Dr. Gladden. "We're getting working class people who just don't have coverage."

Ms. Troutman, an 18-year-old from Maiden Choice who packs groceries at a store in Catonsville, had to take a bus, the light rail, and then a free shuttle bus to reach the ship.

"I came because I was in pain," she said. "It seemed that whenever I planned on seeing a dentist, I always had a bill that needed paying instead."

Dr. Gladden said most of the people he has seen have never had regular dental care, and virtually everyone was driven to the ship by pain. He said the state of their mouths was much worse than he saw in a clinic he took part in last year in Costa Rica. Several patients have had to have what he termed "full-mouth extractions" -- which means all their remaining teeth were pulled.

They were then told where to apply for programs that offer subsidized dentures.

Brig. Gen. Philip Pushkin, the National Guard commander at the Sanctuary, said he expects that 800 people will have been treated by the time the clinic closes tomorrow evening. Already, 200 free prescriptions have been filled. He said he also hopes that the Guard can arrange to re-open the clinic periodically in the future.

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