It started with a toothache.
But what seemed like typical growing pains for 12-year-old Deamonte Driver turned deadly, when the spread of bacteria caused an abscessed tooth to turn into a brain infection.
That was more than seven years ago, but the story of the Prince George’s County, Maryland, boy sticks with Stephen Thomas, the director of the Maryland Center for Health Equity at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health.
“No 12-year-old should die because they have a toothache,” Thomas said. “Why should a kid have to die for there to be improvements in our health?
Thomas set out to combat some of the health care inequalities in the state by organizing the Mid-Maryland Mission of Mercy and Health Equity Festival, held at the University of Maryland from Sept. 4 to 6.
The event was part of a larger movement by Mission of Mercy, an independent nonprofit organization that provides free health care and dental care to those in need.
With a $158,000 price tag, according to Thomas, the event featured 110 dental chairs and about 1,800 volunteers. It provided $1.5 million worth of free dental care to an estimated 1,260 people.
The festival served people of diverse backgrounds, but one key demographic was intentionally omitted: children.
That’s because, Thomas said children on Medicaid have dental coverage, but adults do not. Plus, parents often put their children’s health before their own. A major goal of this event was to address adults’ unmet needs.
But the bigger story, Thomas said, is one of a broken health care system.
“Dental coverage in the [Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act] is weak,” he said, noting if parents have to choose between out of pocket costs for dental care for themselves or medical and other needs for their children, they usually choose the children.
It’s not just the Affordable Care Act, though. This issue of disparities in health care between parents and children has been around for quite some time and is not easily resolved.
A 2001 study by The Urban Institute — based on data from the 1999 National Survey of America’s Families — evaluated patterns of child-parent insurance coverage and drew similar conclusions to Thomas.
“The most common [discordant] scenario,” the researchers noted, “is that a child is covered and the parent is uninsured, which occurs for 7.3 percent of children overall.”
“It’s not uncommon for people to sacrifice for family — mothers in particular — to sacrifice their own health...for the sake of their children,” Thomas said.
“They simply could not afford taking care of their health,” Thomas added. “It was a decision between getting a root canal or crown that was $1,200 or putting food on the table.
Anthony Milton sits alone, waiting for his number to be called.
He has a warm smile; his ivory teeth stand out against his dark skin, but there are gaps in his mouth where several teeth used to be.
The 60-year-old Fort Washington, Maryland, resident is at his second Mission of Mercy event. He says it’s actually the second time he’s seen a dentist in his entire life.
Last time, after arriving at 4 a.m., he left at 6:30 p.m. with two fewer teeth.
“It can save people a lot of money,” said Milton. “I mean, dental stuff, it’s very expensive.”
It was “hard times,” growing up, he said, then chuckled. “Nah, it wasn’t that bad.”
Milton didn’t make it to college, but he made sure his sons did. In fact, it was always about the kids, he said.
“It’s all about them. Well, when they was kids anyway. It’s all about them,” he reflected. “My life was pretty much taking care of them, you know, working and making sure they had.”
Upon hearing Milton’s story, Thomas said, “that shows the level of commitment people have to make sure their kids have a chance.”
And Milton was not the only one there who prioritized his children’s health over his own.
Mimi Ramos sits alone.
The 32-year-old Rockville, Maryland, resident gives a welcoming smile when approached.
She’s a single mom with three kids and isn’t working, so she expressed gratitude that her kids have dental care through the Maternal and Child Health Integrated Program.
“They just all had their checkups. You know, right before school starts they have their checkup with the doctor and dentist,” Ramos said.
It’s different for her, though.
“I’m just like, ‘I’ll take care of it later.’ I know I have a lot of cavities, but I’ve never really had any issues. … You know you’ve got to go [to the dentist], but you don’t want to go because you can’t do anything with that information,” she said, reflecting on the cost of dental care.
“If my kids are OK, then I’m good, so I haven’t been to a dentist in almost 10 years.”
Ramos also reflected on her childhood. She remembers that when she got injured as a kid, she and her family went to the local drug store to get supplies to treat her at home rather than seeking professional care.
“Growing up I just adapted that habit with myself. … If nothing’s really wrong, then why do anything about it?”
Coming to her first Mission of Mercy event was a transformative experience for Ramos. She said she learned a lot about how dental health can impact overall physical health.
“I think this is almost like a jump start for me to kind of take care of myself more,” she said.
“When I come here it’s nice to know I can get whatever I need done and not forget about myself trying to make sure my kids are OK. …I’m sure what I’m getting done is over $1,000 that I don’t have. … It’s like a burden’s been lifted to have a service like this.”
There’s no shortage of people suffering, Thomas pointed out.
“As parents and caregivers, we will sacrifice ourselves for the sake of our children,” Thomas said, so that’s why events such as this one are important.
“Children are seen as innocent whereas an adult with multiple abscesses and cavities are seen as being neglectful.”
Thomas referred back to 12-year-old Deamonte Driver’s story.
His death made national news and led to new state legislation to cover children’s oral health.
“But an adult who dies under these circumstances,” Thomas said, “does not get the same — for lack of a better word — sympathy; it’s not a national news story that goes around the country like it does when it’s a child.”