The man wouldn’t give his last name.
Tom G., a 55-year-old from Gaithersburg, was seated in the waiting area at 1 p.m. on Saturday, alone in one of the thousands of red folding seats in the University of Maryland’s Xfinity Center bowl. Event volunteers had assigned him and four others the last numbers to be called for free dental services at the Mid-Maryland Mission of Mercy & Health Equity Festival.
“My name’s kind of private,” Tom said, his eyes darting briefly to the floor. “I usually can afford the clinics around town that let you pay a certain amount at a time.”
A month ago, a hole opened up in one of Tom’s upper molars. He started buying painkillers at nearly $10 a bottle — a steep price given the moderate relief they offered — still, after every meal, he’d feel two hours of severe pain.
But Tom, who was sporting a pair of aviators with reflective lenses on his head, made sure I understood he’s not one for taking handouts. Rather, he’s short on money in the latter part of a year in which both his car and water heater broke down.
Because he didn’t know when he’d find another opportunity to treat his worsening tooth, he got in his car at 3:30 a.m. and made it to the line outside the XFINITY Center about 30 minutes after, just a few spots in front of where organizers later made the cut-off and started turning people away.
“It’s really, really nice that they’re doing something like this,” he said, minutes before his number was called over the loudspeakers. “I’m very grateful. This is a tremendous thing they’re doing.”
When Tom’s number was up, he walked down the steps to the floor of the arena and sat in the the only unoccupied seat.
As others in front of him moved through the check-in process, he moved to his right down the row of chairs until finally he was sitting in the last one — a process that took about 10 to 15 minutes. Most of the 1,200-plus patients served at the Sept. 5th and 6th event, including Tom, waited several hours from the time they were let in the stadium to when they were seated in a dentist’s chair. Some waited hours only to be turned away.
“These people … suffer from a number of issues,” said Stephen Thomas, event organizer and director of the Maryland Center for Health Equity. “But they come here because they’re in pain.”
Thomas was inspired by a similar event put on last year at a Laurel, Maryland, high school by Catholic Charities, a ministry outreach organization of the Archdiocese of Washington, he said.
He reached out to Catholic Charities on behalf of the Center for Health Equity, and the two institutions partnered to sponsor the free dental clinic. Thomas and company recruited roughly 1,800 volunteers for this weekend’s clinic, including practicing dentists, dental assistants, university students and locals looking to lend a hand.
“I made a lot of phone calls, I sent out a lot of emails, used up a lot of favors,” said Dr. Glenn Nathan, an organizer and participating dentist in the event. “People are really excited to do it, they actually are.”
On Saturday, Nathan walked like a field general on the floor of the arena: urgent, but poised. When stopped at one point in the middle of our interview by a nurse with a folder of files, he rattled off procedural answers that seemed to solve the problem. Nathan led or assisted in about 25 surgeries on Friday, he said.
Nathan and his colleagues, such as Dr. Jeff Paper, a restorative dentist, donated both expertise and time to the event. Some dentists closed their offices to work at the Health Equity Festival. Paper gave up his day off.
“It’s better to give than to receive,” Paper said. “It just makes you feel good. It’s like you’re helping people and not asking anything in return. You hope you get a smile, that they’ll say ‘Thanks so much.’ And that, that’s your payment. There’s no price for that.”
In addition to providing free medical care, dentists wrote prescriptions for patients, which were filled at the check-out station. David Garcia, 50, received two weeks worth of pain medication for his tooth extraction this weekend. It had been bothering him for six months, he said.
After his procedure, Garcia signed up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, through D.C. Health Link — which occupied one of the tables in the health fair area of the clinic. Other free services included flu shots, HIV tests and attorney counseling sessions.
But while the amenities would likely help the underinsured people coming through the festival, affordable insurance advocates questioned why dental care was not valued as highly as general health insurance in many low-cost plans.
“Your mouth is your first line of defense,” said Ciana McMillian, a D.C. Health Link representative and Howard University student. “If this shuts down, then you have other things in your body that can shut down. So it definitely is something that needs to be pushed stronger with the Affordable Care Act.”