Lawrence resident Rita Moses spent more than 14 hours in the parking lot of the Douglas County Dental Clinic to receive free care Friday.
Moses said she works part-time in a child care center and as a restaurant hostess in a retirement community, but neither job offers health benefits. The 60-something grandmother said she’s barely making enough to pay the bills, let alone purchase insurance or pay for dental work.
Moses said she tries to get her teeth cleaned once every other year at the clinic, but it’s hard for her to pay even its lowest fee levels of $45 for an exam and cleaning. She tries to save up but often ends up rescheduling appointments.
“I thought I would save some money,” she said at 8 p.m. Thursday while waiting in line for the Friday clinic.
“I figured the sooner I get here, the better. I’ve never been to one of these, but I thought it’s just once a year, so I will just have an adventure tonight,” she said.
Within an hour, there were nine people in line; by midnight, there were more than a dozen.
Eighteen-year-old Shaquel Gainous, of Lawrence, showed up at 10:30 p.m. because he hadn’t seen a dentist in about six years. He took his skateboard with him and used that to bide time in a nearby parking lot.
Gainous, Moses and others were in line for the clinic’s fifth annual Free Dental Day. With the help of volunteers, the clinic provided services on a first-come, first-served basis to the first 70 uninsured Douglas County residents who met income guidelines.
Those services included exams, X-rays, fillings, extractions and cleanings. The clinic also referred patients to a private practice for oral surgery.
Julie Branstrom, executive director of the clinic, said people tend to put off dental care because they can’t afford it and they typically choose to pay for housing, utilities and even medical care over dental care.
“I think there’s a lack of education about how important it is to take care of your teeth,” Branstrom said. “Dental issues can lead to other serious problems.”
Last year, there were more than 470 cases of preventable emergency room visits at Lawrence Memorial Hospital because of dental problems.
Dr. Ryan Brittingham, of Lawrence, was one of nine dentists who volunteered Friday, and he extracted broken and infected teeth, something he said typically costs $200. If not treated, these patients could have potentially ended up the ER.
“It’s rewarding,” he said about the volunteer work. “I’m glad I was able to help out.”
Last year, Lawrence resident Billy Mason, 52, attended free dental day for the first time, and was the first in line because he was in a lot of pain. The clinic pulled three teeth that day.
“It was great because I had no money, no income. I was flat broke,” he said.
Mason said he has held a variety of jobs throughout his life but is currently a stay-at-home dad and unemployed. The last time he saw a dentist was at last year’s free dental day, and he expected a dentist would pull more teeth.
He waited all night for services along with Kathleen Hall, 58, a Lawrence musician, who hadn’t seen a dentist in at least a year. She had several cavities filled and was grateful to have learned about the free services from a flier at the Lawrence Senior Center.
Debbie Souders, 40, of rural Lawrence, said she hasn’t missed the free dental day in four years. She said she’s receiving disability benefits but still can’t afford the clinic’s discounted rates. She said she had canceled several dental appointments to fill cavities and fix chipped teeth.
“I’m always grateful,” she said about the free services. Souders waited in line all night despite pain from a car accident in February.
Sarah Wallace, 35, of Lawrence, said it was her second year to attend the event. Last year, the clinic filled three cavities and then coaxed her into going to its neighbor Health Care Access, which was offering free wellness exams that day.
“I had noticed that I had a lump in my breast a little bit earlier,” she said. A Health Care Access nurse took a look at them and said she needed to have the lumps tested, and then set her up with an appointment to get a mammogram and a couple of biopsies through the hospital. So far, doctors haven’t determined that they are cancerous but they’re closely monitoring them.
“It was amazing because I never would have been able to afford that on my own,” she said.
Wallace is a freelance Web designer and a full-time college student but has no health or dental insurance. She said she uses Health Care Access when she or her daughter need medical care, and she said it’s great because there is no wait and the fees are minimal. She recently spent $10 on an office visit for her daughter, who had a foot infection, and then $4 for an antibiotic.
“It’s great because I’ve lived in a lot of different cities and a lot of places will have free clinics, but you end up waiting and waiting and waiting and sometimes you don’t even get seen and you have to come back and wait,” she said.
Lori Winfrey, advanced practice registered nurse at Health Care Access, said the clinic teamed up with the Douglas County Dental Clinic again on Free Dental Day because it’s a good way to raise awareness about its services. The clinic was offering free appointments, and early in the morning, staff had seen patients with colds, coughs and high blood-sugar levels.
On its lawn, other nonprofit agencies and students from Kansas University’s School of Pharmacy were offering blood-pressure checks and bone density screenings along with information on topics such as nutrition, sexually transmitted diseases and smoking cessation. Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department provided 47 free flu shots worth $1,300.
Ronald Smith, 47, of Lawrence and a part-time painter, said he liked the one-stop shop for free care.
“You really can’t beat it, and for these people to do it, it’s awesome. It’s a great service,” he said.
Though he uses Health Care Access for medical care, he hadn’t been to the dental clinic. It was the first time he had been to a dentist since the late 1980s.
“It’s embarrassing, but knock on wood. I had no cavities,” he said with a smile. “I just needed a cleaning.”
WHAT A DAY!
Here’s a look at the services that were provided for free as part of Douglas County Dental Clinic’s fifth annual Free Dental Day:
• 72 — patients received exams and X-rays. Of those, 56 were treated and the rest are scheduled to receive care in the next few weeks at the clinic or in the practices of volunteers.
• $24,300 — estimated value of care for the 72 patients.
• Nine — dentists volunteered, up one from last year. They were Ed Manda, Chris Leiszler, Ryan Brittingham, John Hay, Galen Van Blaricum, Nealy Newkirk, Keith Van Horn, Matthew Krische and Paul Herrera.
• Six — patients were referred to Dr. Phil Gaus who will provide extractions in his office during the next couple of weeks.
In December, the clinic will move to a dental practice at 2210 Yale Road that was formerly occupied by another dental practice. The building, which is just west of Montana Mike’s Steakhouse at 1015 Iowa, is about double the size of the current location, and they will go from having six dental operatories to nine.
The clinic will continue to have a Free Dental Day in its new location, and it is considering expanding it to a two-day event where patients would be screened the first day and then have an appointment for services the next day.
“It would have to be an experiment,” Julie Branstrom, executive director, said. “I’m not sure if that would be better or worse for the people who take advantage of these services.”