“My words will come out mumbled because the Novocaine or whatever they used is still at work,” Joe Watts, a U.S. Army veteran from Westminster said with a laugh. He had just left the dental “office,” located behind him in a sleek, white Winnebago parked behind Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, in Taneytown.
This, however, was no ordinary RV. It was Wednesday, Feb. 6, and this was the Taneytown debut of the new Mission of Mercy mobile dental clinic, a $400,000, 40-foot, state-of-the-art mobile suite enabling volunteer dentists to help patients who might not be able to afford dental insurance or dental work on their own.
“They took out two of my root canal teeth,” Watts said of the work he had done at the clinic. “They had broken off and they removed the roots from two of them.”
Deploying a mobile dental clinic has been something Mission of Mercy has been working toward for about five years, according to Executive Director Linda Ryan. A faith-based nonprofit that provides free health care to those in need in Maryland and Pennsylvania, Mission of Mercy had already been offering free medical and dental care at six clinic sites, including Taneytown, on a roughly monthly basis, and utilizes a similar mobile health clinic for physician visits.
But prior to December 2018, Mission of Mercy’s dental operations were conducted in a MASH style, improvised dental clinic in a room at a clinic location.
“Having the MASH unit provided us the opportunity to provide dental care for those who can’t afford it, and now there are so many,” Ryan said. “Our government doesn’t even give dental care to seniors.”
But setting up a dental clinic in a Sunday school classroom of a church does have its drawbacks, which led the nonprofit to the realization it needed a mobile dental clinic on par with its mobile health clinic, according to Ryan.
“It took an hour to set that MASH unit up. Now they don’t have to do that,” she said. “With everything already set up, it saves us two hours, one on each end; setup and break down.”
That combined with greater capacity — the mobile dental clinic features two dental suites and one prep chair, allowing two dentist to work simultaneously as opposed to a solo operator — will allow Mission of Mercy to treat more people on each clinic day, Ryan said.
“What we’re hoping to do is get it up from about seven patients a day to maybe 15,” she said, noting that Mission of Mercy hopes to see about 2,400 patients in the van over the next two years.
And there is something to be said for the more professional environment, according to Phillip Uffer, a dentist who practices in New Windsor and volunteers with Mission of Mercy.
“We have a real chair, I don’t have to work out of a lawn chair. I have a real dental light, I don’t have to work with a headlight strapped to my head,” he said. “They forgot to bring gowns once, so I improvised and put a trash bag over me as a gown. The first patient we had was scared of dentists and I was like, ‘yeah, it’s come down to this.’ They just thought that was funny.”
Uffer likes to joke, but he’s very serious about his volunteer dental work, and is excited about the opportunity to more more of it the new mobile clinic represents.
“Everybody is doing stuff overseas, which is great. But we have enough people in our backyard we should be helping,” he said. This gives me a platform where I can do that.”
Though whether it’s a sparkling new mobile clinic or the old MASH unit, Uffer said his Mission of Mercy patients are generally happy to see him.
“It’s funny, most people don’t like going to the dentist,” he said. “Here, the dentists are rock stars, because we’re going to get you out of pain. They want to see us.”
Patients like Mirtala Argueta, of Reisterstown, who spoke through a translator to say a toothache had sent her up to Taneytown that morning. She was waiting for Novocaine to kick in before an extraction.
Or patients like Bill Murphy, of Manchester.
“In the top I have a plate and in the bottom I have teeth, so they gave me an X-ray and told me what I needed have done,” he said, “a root canal on one of my teeth.”
Murphy is a long-time client of Mission of Mercy, having come to the clinics to help manage his diabetes since 2000, but he is also working with Mission of Mercy to help others. A co-founder of the nonprofit Friends of Disabled American Veterans of Carroll County, Murphy gave Watts a ride to the clinic that morning.
“What we’re going to start to do is have a relationship with Mission of Mercy and we’ll be bringing veterans out here to Taneytown so they can get treatment here,” he said. “This is a type of thing where unfortunately a lot of people cannot afford dental insurance. The same thing with the veterans.”
For more information on Mission of Mercy and the organization’s dental and medical clinics, visit www.amissionofmercy.org/maryland-pennsylvania.