Last year, my friend Dan Tapper wrote a guest post for Bonny Glen about the Mission of Mercy event in Connecticut—a free dental clinic people wait all year (and many hours in line) to attend. This year, I’m delighted to once again feature Dan’s recap of this remarkable event.
Connecticut Mission of Mercy: The Wait, the Line, the Need
by Dan Tapper
The rain hadn’t started quite yet around noontime in Bridgeport, CT last Thursday, but the sky was showing it could happen at any minute. There was a steely pall and a grim chill that spoke more to March than to the early summer day it actually was.
Beth Carter was ready, rain or shine. The New York resident was going to get her ailing teeth fixed, no matter what. She was here, first in line outside the Webster Bank Arena, and doors to the free Connecticut Mission of Mercy (CTMOM) dental clinic would be opening in just…18 more hours.
To Beth, it didn’t matter. She was here. And she was prepared to wait.
“I missed last year’s clinic by one day. There was no way I was missing this year’s,” the Westchester County, NY resident said with a smile. “The cost of dental work is so expensive – I’ve been planning for this since last year!”
Beth sat there, the only one in line until about 1:30 pm last Thursday. She had a chair and books and snacks and blankets. She chatted with reporters who were on-hand to cover the clinic’s setup, she talked with and charmed volunteers who stopped out frequently to check on her.
By 4 pm Beth had about 15 new friends on line with her, ranging in age from early 60s down to less than a year old. By 6 pm the number grew to 25. It was raining now, but the Webster Bank Arena has an overhang by the front door that runs about 100 feet long and 30 feet out. Organizers figured that up to 200 people could stay dry under there.
They were right – by 2 am more than 200 people were in the line, waiting for the doors to open in four hours, all keeping dry. Waiting for the free dental care that was there for them inside – free cleanings, fillings, extractions, x-rays, root canals, oral surgery; basically anything they needed. They could even get partial dentures made for their front teeth. For free.
The line was sleepy but friendly. They huddled under the overhang as the rain fell and fell. Volunteers brought them water and chatted with them. The Red Cross set up a truck to hand out free coffee and snacks. As the rain pounded the arena’s plaza and the line swelled to 350, some unfortunately standing in the rain now (all would soon be brought inside to stay dry while waiting), there was still an hour to go before the doors opened. And the line kept growing – patient and friendly, but deeply in need of dental care, of relief from tooth pain.
That line. That wait. This is the face of dental care in America. This is the picture of the need.
America’s Mission of Mercy began in rural Virginia in 2000. A group of dentists got together decided to set up a charity event to help people of that area receive the dental care they so badly needed. That was the first Mission of Mercy free dental clinic ever held.
Connecticut was just the 7th state to jump on board when it held its first CTMOM in April 2008. It was held in the quiet middle class town of Tolland, 25 miles east of Hartford and one town over from the University of Connecticut’s main campus. It’s not exactly the middle of nowhere, but it’s indeed a stop on the way. That year, in pouring rain that dwarfed even what was seen this year in Bridgeport, hundreds of people lined up overnight to get in. All told that first two-day clinic treated 1,200 people with about 75 dental chairs. It was a big start.
The next year in New Haven (home of Yale University but also filled with, like this year’s host city of Bridgeport, much poverty) that number swelled to more than 1,800 and the number of dental chairs to more than 100 and more than 1,000 volunteers on-hand.
By the time the 5th annual CTMOM rolled around last year in Danbury in the far southwestern corner of Connecticut, just across the border from New York, the picture was a familiar one. That line. All those dental chairs. More than 1,500 volunteers. The need. The need remained as visible as ever.
And it’s growing nationally. By this year 26 states now host them. America’s Mission of Mercy, based in Kansas, is the organization that sends support and materials to the states in the form of four tractor-trailers, filled with dental chairs, pumping and filtration systems and everything else needed to create the infrastructure of a full functioning dental office.
It takes one full truck to outfit the Connecticut Mission of Mercy. Setup happens in a day – really in about eight hours. We watched with amazement while the empty floor of an 8,000-seat sports/concert arena was transformed, bit by bit, into a 120-chair dental office. Rows and rows of chairs for general dentistry popped up. Pipe and drape cordoned off special areas for numbing, oral surgery and children’s dentistry. This was an operation as technologically advanced as an dental office in the country – there was nothing makeshift or temporary looking about it. And it literally went up before our eyes.
The numbers generated by the Connecticut Mission of Mercy are staggering. A quick glance:
2,100 – The number patients served this year
1,500 – The number of volunteers on-hand (Fifteen hundred – think about that number for a minute)
120 – The number of dental chairs
300 – The number of dentists working on-site, taking the day off as well as donating their Saturday.
$1.35 million – The amount in free dental care given out
2 – The number of days in which this all takes place
365 – The number of days it takes to plan the Connecticut Mission of Mercy
The Connecticut Mission of Mercy is a wonderful event, an inspiring event. Every Mission of Mercy held around the country is. But when all is said and done, it’s charity. And charity, as we all know, is no substitute for a comprehensive dental health care policy.
Dental health is general health – the two are inextricably linked. Dental decay is preventable, but it is also prevalent. Heart disease, diabetes, low birth-weight among babies – this are byproducts of poor dental health. Conversely, good dental care makes a healthier body. It also adds to a person’s confidence and demeanor. Who wants to go to a job interview afraid to smile, or in pain? Who wants to exist like that for even five minutes? But people do, year-round.
That’s why beyond the MOM clinics, when the trucks are loaded back up and the chairs and pipes and equipment are all off to their next destination, the dialogue must continue on how to find a more permanent solution for the dental crisis currently hitting our nation. Connecticut is the richest state in the richest nation in the world. Yet hundreds of thousands of people here lack access to adequate dental care. Lawmakers, the dental community, insurers, businesspeople, health advocates, community leaders – they all need to be at the table, working on a long-term solution.
Until then, we wait for charitable clinics such as CTMOM to roll around. Like Beth Carter and her hundreds of new friends sitting in that line, we wait. We wait with hope, with patience and maybe even with a smile on our faces.
But still, we wait.
Dan Tapper is a public relations professional in Connecticut with the firm Sullivan & LeShane Public Relations, Inc.. CTMOM has been a client of his firm since 2008.