Blue sky breaks through what had been a drizzly morning outside the Arizona State Fairgrounds, where the Central Arizona Dental Mission of Mercy held its free clinic. On Dec. 7 and 8, 2018, patients numbering into the thousands—many of whom camped out for days before the doors opened—waited in line for a chance to receive treatment. The clinic marked the mission’s seventh annual event and would deliver upward of $2 million in free care to those in need.
After standing in line since 5 a.m. on a Friday morning, Ashley Bersine of Phoenix and her three children sit in a waiting area. Bersine and her family camped out to be sure they’d get inside and receive treatment; unfortunately for some people who had waited, standing in line did not guarantee treatment that day and many had to come back Saturday. Bersine hoped to get checkups and cleanings for all of her children.
Kevin Conroy, executive director of CADSF, updates people waiting to get into the clinic. With the clinic closing at 5 p.m., those still in line were given wristbands to secure a spot the next morning. Conroy and his wife, Dr. Jacqueline Allen, an endodontist in Phoenix, have worked closely with the Arizona Dental Mission of Mercy since 2014, after years of traveling the country to volunteer in other charity events.
Dr. Brett Dameron, a Phoenix dentist and the president of CADSF, stands in front of the main operations area in the center of the Coliseum. “When you volunteer, it’s just the amount of heart that all these people have, and the amount of pain they’ve been enduring for so many years,” Dameron said. “Then when you get them out of pain and get them healthy again, it’s such a warm feeling in your heart. When they come up and hug you after they’d been in pain forever, it’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.”
Dameron has been involved for all of the mission’s seven-year history. As president, Dameron has the responsibility of informing all 1,600 Central Arizona Dental Society Members of the work the foundation is doing. This year, he also served as the anesthesia lead for the mission.
Inside the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum’s nearly 15,000-square-foot facility, nearly 300 dentists and more than 1,200 hygienists, support staff and other volunteers transformed the arena into a 100-chair dental practice, including individual sections for hygiene, pediatrics, oral surgery, fillings, dentures and more. Patients were treated from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. for two days.
A child looks on while his mother undergoes the screening process before being admitted and directed to a specific area. In 2010, Arizona discontinued adult dental benefits from its widely used Medicaid system. Only recently have limited benefits been restored, with an annual cap of $1,000—an insufficient sum for patients with complex dental needs, according to the directors of the Arizona Dental Mission of Mercy.
Angel Vasquez sits in the waiting area after braving the cold and rain for hours. Once inside, Vasquez waited his turn for screening and evaluation, before being sent for X-rays, where his most dire needs were narrowed down, and he was assigned to a wing of the clinic for treatment.
Volunteer Dr. Trever Siu, a periodontist, talks with patients before continuing evaluations. There was a constant flow of patients from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. both days the clinic was open. Patients with any medically compromising conditions could be referred to community resources off-site as needed.
Dr. Gary Jones educates a group of waiting patients on what to expect before they head to an operatory chair to get fillings.
A large part of the mission centers on patient education, proper hygiene and prevention. For most of the nearly 2,000 patients who were seen over the two-day event, this would likely be their only chance to be seen by a dentist for the next year. Jones currently serves on an advisory committee that oversees the mission, and he’s been involved since the mission began seven years ago.
An assistant pauses between treating patients. Each year, the mission needs more volunteers and corporate support, because the number of those in need continues to climb.
Dr. Lawrence Wallace and Liat Furyan-Banach flank a patient who just finished his treatment to receive a full set of dentures. Wallace, the creator of a one-step denture system, was volunteering for the fourth time. The need for dentures was so high that all available times, spaces and resources were depleted before the first day of the clinic was finished.