Free dental clinic draws hundreds to Bridgeport

Bridgeport – Beth Carter was in pain from the oral surgery. She’d spent the past night outside. She was on the verge of crying from the pain, except she couldn’t stop praising what she’d just gotten: her first dental care in nearly a decade.

“I’ve been preparing for this day for a whole year,” said Carter, 55, the first patient at this year’s Connecticut Mission of Mercy free dental clinic. She arrived to wait in line at 10:30 a.m. Thursday, 19½ hours before the clinic was scheduled to open.

Carter, who lives in Westchester County, N.Y., and works as a home health caregiver, learned about the annual clinic last year, a day too late to make it to the 2012 clinic in Danbury. She’d read online that past clinics drew hundreds of people who waited overnight. So this year, she was ready. She packed a chair, rain poncho, two jackets, rain boots, an umbrella, blankets and snacks, and set out for Bridgeport.

What she didn’t expect: For a few hours, Carter was the whole line.

This year’s clinic opened on a rainy morning, with fewer patients than organizers expected. Not that it was empty. By 4 a.m., there were 250 people waiting outside the Webster Bank Arena, where the clinic was held. When the doors opened a couple of hours later, there were 350.

Long lines for free care have become the norm in a state where an overall high level of wealth and relatively low rate of people without health insurance generally mask the widespread need for dental care. The annual Mission of Mercy clinics serve to showcase it. They typically treat more than 2,000 people in two days. In some years, enough people jave lined up overnight that the clinic reached capacity before opening its doors.

This year, the heavy rain probably kept people away, as did the expectations about long lines, said Dr. Bruce Tandy, the clinic’s co-chairman. By midmorning, he and other organizers were trying to spread word through the media that there was still room for more patients in the cavernous arena.

On Saturday, the crowd was more typical, and the clinic reached its capacity for the day by midmorning.

There was an upside to the lower-than-expected demand Friday morning: Those who showed up were able to get more comprehensive care. Tandy figured that by the end of the day, the clinic might do more dental work than usual since there would be time to do more for each person.

Carter, for example, was planning to get more work done after her initial surgery, which had removed the roots from two teeth that had broken. She had a cavity to get filled.

“The cost of dental work is astronomical,” said Carter, who doesn’t have insurance. She noted that even if you have coverage, the copayments and other out-of-pocket costs can make extensive dental work cost-prohibitive. Her last dental visit was about eight years ago, when she had a tooth removed.

“It’s easier to pay for an extraction than to have anything else done,” she said, noting that that’s why many people lose their teeth.

Carter’s mouth was still numb as she raved about the care she got. She said she planned to return next year — if not as a patient, then as a volunteer.

Rashad Cruthird, 39, was also impressed with the dental work, calling it the “best dental experience of my life.” He got a tooth filled, then got back in line to get an extraction.

Ordinarily, the New Haven resident would not line up to get his teeth worked on. Cruthird has a major fear of dental work, and makes sure to brush and floss to stave off the need to see a dentist. But a few months ago, he started having pain, bad enough to consider retiring his dentist-avoidance strategy. Trouble was, Cruthird, who works in construction, doesn’t have dental insurance.

A friend who went to a previous Mission of Mercy told him about the clinic a couple of months ago. He arrived Friday around 3:15 a.m. and became the 144th person in line.

“There were tents everywhere, sleeping bags, babies,” he said. “I’d never seen anything like that, outside of a concert.”

Inside the arena, which more often hosts hockey and basketball games, the floor was filled with more than 120 dental chairs, and the seats held patients waiting for treatment. Volunteer medical and dental professionals triaged patients in the hallways, and a row of X-ray booths stood along a set of windows. The giant electronic scoreboard hanging from the ceiling displayed the morning’s statistics. At 10:15 a.m.: 2,600 procedures done. $296,500 worth of donated care. 637 patients registered. 405 in the clinic.

There was a children’s area, although typically only about 5 percent of the clinic’s patients are children. Organizers attribute that to major strides in recent years in increasing the number of dentists who accept Medicaid. As a result, most children in the state have access to dental care.

It’s harder for adults. Medicare doesn’t provide dental coverage, and while Connecticut’s Medicaid program does, the rates it pays providers who see adults are so low that few will take many patients. Many people rely on community health centers, which provide dental care on a sliding scale basis.

It’s also tough in the private sector. “Dental insurance is the first thing that employers will get rid of” when they need to cut costs, said Carol Dingeldey, executive director of the Connecticut State Dental Association, one of the clinic’s sponsors. She said an estimated 500,000 adults in the state lack dental insurance, although the number fluctuates.

Tammy Dellacamera is among them. The 27-year-old from Moodus has worked for three years at Dunkin’ Donuts. She gets what she called a minimal health plan, but no dental coverage.

She had a cavity, and it hurt when she smiled.

Four months ago, Dellacamera saw a dentist after getting a coupon for a cleaning and X-rays through the website Groupon. That gave her an idea of what she needed done at the Mission of Mercy.

She got to the clinic at 1:30 a.m., becoming the 95th person in line. Her mom, Nancy Murray, gave her a ride and kept her company.

“It’s an opportunity of a lifetime,” Dellacamera said. “That’s how you’ve got to think about it.”

At that point, around 10 a.m., she’d already had two teeth filled. She was waiting to get two more filled. Murray suggested that she call her friends who needed dental care and tell them to come. Dellacamera said she might try to get more work done after her next two fillings. The plan?

“Just keep on going until they can’t find anything else to do,” she said.

By 10:30, the line was short enough that no one was waiting outside. A woman walking through the front door mentioned that she decided to come after hearing on the news that there was still room.

Josephine Bicknell, director of programs at the Connecticut Foundation for Dental Outreach, greeted another woman and a man as they rushed in from the rain. They’d already been through the clinic, and had come back.

“Get it done while you can,” Bicknell said.