Before most people were waking up on Saturday morning, there was already a huge line stretched around the Xfinity Center, the 18,000-seat basketball arena on the campus of the University of Maryland in College Park.
The annual Mid-Maryland Mission of Mercy dental clinic is a chance for people in the D.C. area to get free dental care. It can be anything from cleaning and X-rays, to fillings, root canals and crowns, and even extractions. The clinic is hosted by the University of Maryland School of Public Health and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington.
The line that started forming before sunrise was so long that by 10 a.m., organizers were already forced to turn away new arrivals.
“Unfortunately we had to stop accepting patients at least two hours ago, as there was an overwhelming demand,” Alexandra Schauffler, spokeswoman for Catholic Charities D.C., told WTOP. “However, we did provide them with information about Catholic Charities’ dental clinics that provide low-cost services.”
But for those that do manage to receive treatment during the two-day event, the work done is likely to be seen as a blessing.
“The home of the Terps has been transformed into a house of smiles,” said Dr. Stephen Thomas, a professor of health policy and director of the Maryland Center for Health Equity.
On Friday and Saturday, the floor of the area was bustling with over 100 patients getting all sorts of work done at the same time, as well as the dentists, hygienists, oral surgeons there to help them.
In all, this clinic relies on about 1,200 volunteers to do everything from serve as escorts and greeters, to translators between dentists and patients.
“We’re here to help, we’re here to give you that extra hand,” said Dr. Lucciola Lambruschini, the director of dental services for D.C.’s Catholic Charities. She said some of the patients, even if they’re getting teeth extracted with gauze still inside their mouth, “have a big smile — they are not in pain anymore.”
Those getting root canals here can even get their crowns put in at the same time, thanks to some of the equipment brought in for this event.
This free event also includes basic health screenings like a blood pressure or cholesterol check, and advice from experts on how to improve health.
“You can talk to a … cardiologist. You can learn how to eat better,” said Thomas. “There’s nothing that does this kind of comprehensive wrap-around service, and in order to do it, guess what? We needed a basketball arena.”
“There’s just a great need for dental care in this area,” said Dr. Liang, an orthodontist who works with the Mid-Maryland Mission of Mercy. “Finally we’re giving them an opportunity to get rid of a lot of that pain.”
The doctors here make a great point of talking about how everything starts with your mouth. Bad dental health can make it harder to eat, as well as tougher to smile confidently, which then makes it harder for you to get a job, or a better job that will improve your circumstances.
Turning that around is why so many dental professionals were dressed in scrubs and working away only minutes after the sun came up.
“It’s just close to my heart because it means a lot to everybody here, to help patients,” said Erin Ward of Rockville. “I love it! I love helping the community. I like to give back.”
It’s estimated that around $1.5 million of free dental care will be provided over the course of this two-day event. And Dr. Thomas said it costs about $160,000 and some engineering magic just to transform the basketball arena into a safe, sterile place.
Anyone who “is willing to help close the gap,” pleaded Dr. Thomas, “please go online and be generous.”
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