CAPE GIRARDEAU — When Patricia Wilkins, 49, had tooth pain, she asked her sister to use a pair of dentists’ pliers she found at a yard sale to pull her tooth out. Her sister has pulled out five of her teeth because Wilkins can’t afford to go to the dentist.
“She would break the tooth loose first and then just work them out a little at a time,” Wilkins said. “Once the tooth gets out, it’s a relief. I would just go through the pain of letting her pull them out to keep from suffering.”
Wilkins has been to a dentist twice in her lifetime. From 9 p.m. Thursday to 5 a.m. Friday, she waited outside the Show Me Center in Cape Girardeau to see a dentist for a third time. One of her wisdom teeth was broken off, and she wanted it pulled. She brought her husband, her sister and her nephew from Greenville to the Missouri Mission of Mercy, a large-scale clinic that provides free dental care to anyone who needs it.
Approximately 1,775 people attended the event, hosted by the Missouri Dental Association and the MDA Foundation. It was the second Mission of Mercy clinic in the state. The first was in 2011 in Springfield, where 1,856 people received care. More than 1,000 dentists, dental hygienists, physicians, nurses and lab technicians volunteered for this year's two-day event, which provided nearly $962,000 worth of cleanings, extractions and fillings.
Missouri ranks 41st in adult oral health care, according to data collected during the 2010 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System Survey, based on the percentage of adults who reported a dental visit in the past year.
Outside the Show Me Center on Thursday, people stood, huddled under blankets or umbrellas to avoid the rain, in a line that snaked around the building. They were waiting for the clinic to open at 5 a.m., and some of them had been waiting since Wednesday. Camping tents and plastic tarps were strewn throughout the parking lot and grass, where people had spent the night.
Troy Kidwell, 31, from Houston, Mo., was the first in line. He had waited outside with his nephew for 37 hours. Kidwell was there to get all of his teeth pulled so he could get dentures. He has had bad teeth since he was in second grade and has lived with pain in his mouth for years.
“I’ve been waiting for something like this for a long time,” he said. “I’m going to go home a healthier man.”
Having bad teeth makes it harder for him to get a job, and people tend to judge him by his appearance, he said. He is a mechanic by trade but does a variety of odd jobs.
“Everyone looks at you, and the first thing that they think is that you’re a meth head or a crack head because your teeth are rotten,” Kidwell said. “It’s really hard to describe what it’s like. To meet someone for the first time, and have them not want to shake your hand or automatically not trust you because of what they see right here.”
When Kidwell left the clinic Friday, he had had 13 teeth pulled. The dentists could not pull the last nine teeth because it was too many teeth to pull at one time, he said.
After people in line entered the center, they had more hours of waiting before they got the care they needed. People had to first fill out a medical form, go to a medical triage station, then to a dental triage station, and then wait in their respective care area, which was extractions, cleanings or fillings.
Not everyone who makes it to the medical triage station is allowed to move on to dental triage. Nurses and physicians must make sure they are healthy enough to receive dental care, so they check blood sugar and blood pressure levels. Wilkins was one of the people stopped at medical triage because her blood sugar level was 447. She drank water and walked around the center from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m. to try to bring her blood sugar level down to 300. This requirement is set higher than the normal level of 140 milligrams per deciliter for a person who ate two hours earlier. By the time Wilkins' blood sugar level was below 300, it was too late for her to get her tooth pulled. She left at 11 p.m. with just a filled cavity.
Dentist Kirk Opdahl came from Independence to volunteer because he sees a need for dental care.
“It just makes you feel good at the end of the day,” Opdahl said. “When you remove teeth or fix teeth and people are crying because of joy, not because of pain, it’s a neat feeling.”
The most common dental procedure people needed seemed to be extractions, said Earl Larson, a dentist from St. Louis. He said he was shocked, and it was an eye-opening experience.
“It makes me even more knowledgeable about how shortsighted the legislature has been with cutting out funding for Medicaid dentistry,” Larson said. “It may have seemed like a good idea 10 years ago, but a lot of these people would have been receiving at least basic dental care for the past 10 years. They are way beyond basic dental care at this point.”
In 2005, the state cut dental care from the services that Medicaid provides. Currently, the only categories of people with Medicaid who can get dental care are children, pregnant women and people with disabilities.
In the extraction waiting area, Bethany Miller, 19, waited in pain. She’s waited in pain for a year and a half to have four of her molars pulled. Miller can’t eat hard foods because it breaks her teeth, and the pain is so great that she takes four ibuprofen pills every four hours every day.
“I wake up in the middle of the night with bad toothaches,” she said. “It affects my work, and it affects taking care of my son. When I’m in pain, I just don’t have much energy to do much because I’m sitting there worrying about my face throbbing so bad.”
Lori Cyr, 38, waited eight years for an opportunity such as the Mission of Mercy. She was in a car wreck, and she chipped her front teeth when they hit the steering wheel. Her front teeth have been falling apart ever since then, and when she touches them, a pain shoots up into her jaw. Cyr couldn't afford to get her teeth fixed, so she came to the clinic with her mother from Fredericktown. Her mother wanted her last seven teeth pulled so she could get dentures, and Cyr wanted her front teeth pulled so she could get a "flipper," or partial dentures.
"I can't wait," she said, laughing with excitement. "There aren't words. I'm that excited that I'm finally getting my actual smile back."