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Free dental clinic draws hundreds

Saturday - 8/3/2013, 4:41pm  ET

Hundreds of people, many of whom slept on the ground overnight, got their teeth worked on at this weekend's free dental clinic at St. Vincent Pallotti High School, in Laurel. (WTOP/Jamie Forzato)

Patients wait overnight for dental care

WTOP's Jamie Forzato reports


LAUREL, Md. - They slept on the cold, hard ground Friday night - just to get a root canal. Hundreds of people from all over Maryland were treated at a two-day free dental clinic in Laurel this weekend.

Crystal, from Bowie, Md., arrived at St. Vincent Pallotti High School at 3 a.m. Saturday after working the night shift at an urgent care facility. "I think I need possibly a root canal and definitely a couple fillings. Any little bit will help, because I don't want to lose all my teeth, but I know they need work and it's a start," she says.

She's number 74 and considers herself lucky. Many others camped out on the street to secure their place in line. "This is like Christmas shopping, when you wait outside the store. Someone said that they laid in a parking spot," she says.

She has a son and works two jobs to pay the bills, so taking care of her teeth was not a priority.

"I kind of let myself go. I had iron anemia and had to get infusions and with vitamin deficiencies, it's hard on my teeth ... I'm only 35 but I'm missing some teeth and they easily break. And by the time you add everything up, kids and everything else around them is more important.

"Pay for the good stuff. The needed stuff," she says. "Even though you try and say 'I'm gonna save; I'm gonna save,' other things come in the way."

More than 300 people were treated Friday, and Deacon Jim Nalls with Catholic Charities expects several hundred more will receive care Saturday. So many people showed up on Saturday morning that the school's transformed gymnasium was quickly at capacity, and organizers had to turn people away 30 minutes after the clinic opened.

"I'm very blessed," Deacon Nalls says. "I can go to the dentist when I want to. To spend all night long and come in and get a couple of teeth filled or extracted - it's amazing that there's that much need in our very relatively affluent area. People have to spend all night long on a street corner to get their teeth pulled."

Tuan Tran, 19, is too old to be covered under his parents' dental insurance and he can't afford to pay out-of-pocket for his root canal. "So this is a blessing," he says.

Deacon Nalls says Tuan's case is very common. "(Dental care) is unsubsidized in any way by the government or in limited ways, especially for adults. Up to about (age) 18 there is some help, some subsidies for dental care, but for most adults there is not. People just can't afford it," he says.

About 300 dentists, hygienists, nurses and pharmacists volunteered at the clinic, providing an estimated $650,000 in free dental work, according to Catholic Charities of Washington.

"It's what we're about," Nalls says. "We serve the poor and vulnerable. And we're happy to serve anybody that needs help. We feel that serving the poor, people will see God in that and people will be attracted to it."

The Mid-Maryland Mission of Mercy is cosponsored by the Catholic Charities and the Maryland Office of Oral Health.

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