I was an hour into my volunteer experience at the Kansas Mission of Mercy, a free two-day dental clinic, when I walked a 50-something gentlemen from the post-operative recovery “room” to the pharmacy. I made the horrible, first-timer mistake of trying to talk to someone who has a mouth full of gauze. But, somewhere between head nods, hand gestures, and a few well-placed grunts, I learned his story.
He hadn’t slept since the previous morning. He worked a full day in Beloit, Kan., a small town in North Central Kansas. By 11 p.m., he was in his car, making the 3.5 hour drive from Beloit to Kansas City, Kan. He was in line by 3 a.m. and one of the lucky 1,100 in line early enough to be served. When the doors opened at 5:30 a.m., there were so many people in line that half of them had to be turned away.
A dentist screened him to determine what kind of dental work he needed. The verdict? Pull out all of his remaining teeth. He had 20 teeth extracted and was ready to leave by 2 p.m. He was given a bottle of pain meds, and warned that he shouldn’t take the pain medicine if he plans to drive. He said that he had no plans for getting dentures. That his teeth had been in such pain that getting them all pulled was a relief and blessing. That he could easily suffer through a three-hour car ride with no pain meds. That was a small price to pay to have them gone.
The Kansas Mission of Mercy is an annual event sponsored by the Kansas Dental Charitable Foundation, an arm of the Kansas Dental Society. The event rotates around the state each year and lasts for two days. It is a massive operation – serving upwards of 2,000 people each year and relying on 1,500 volunteers, including dentists, oral surgeons, dental hygienists and lay people like me.
The 2012 KMOM served 2,144 patients and provided care valued at $1.5 million. Also noteworthy is that the 2012 KMOM in Kansas City served its 20,000th patient. The Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City supported the event with a $25,000 grant dedicated toward purchasing necessary supplies.
I had such mixed feelings about this event. On the one hand, I am happy that people who desperately needed oral health care were able to receive it. On the other, it’s not an adequate alternative to an ongoing and stable source of dental care that includes preventive care, such as cleanings, sealants and fluoride varnishes.
It was one of the patients who said it best. He looked at me and said, “My teeth were fine until Matt Blunt cut dental.” And, sure enough, the 2005 Medicaid cuts in Missouri eliminated access to a dental benefit, since it’s not “essential.” From where I stand, it seems pretty essential. We know that poor oral health impacts overall health, increasing the risk of heart disease, the complications from diabetes, and even causing whole-body infections.
The same patient said, “If you guys had a petition here that people could sign to ask for dental benefits, it would be full.” And he was right. And we didn’t.
Kansas Governor Sam Brownback came and toured the KMOM event. While he was probably impressed by the scope of the effort and incredible volume of services being provided, I hope that as his car pulled away, he thought, “What can we do so events like this aren’t necessary?”
You can view more pictures of the event on our Facebook page.