12:10 PM

Emotions Run Deep at Michigan’s Mission of Mercy Free Dental Clinic

By Eric Hansen, DentaQuest Client Engagement Team

You’ve probably heard of Missions of Mercy free care dental clinics. But until you work at one and meet people who have been suffering mouth pain for months -- to the point where they are actually eager to wait in line, overnight, in the cold, just to get a chance at free dental services -- you can’t fully appreciate the importance of having access to regular dental care.

I saw this first hand as a volunteer at the Michigan Mission of Mercy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids. For thousands across the nation who are uninsured or under-insured, this is the place to get badly needed health care.

My day job is managing client and provider relationships for DentaQuest in the upper Midwest. It mattered to me and my colleagues Jennifer Kalasz and Karen Wade to be part of the volunteer team at the event because the goal of our overall work is to reduce the need for charity care by improving access for all. 

By all accounts, this was a successful clinic. Over 330 dentists and support staff volunteered their time and talents. And over the course of 2 days they helped 900 people, completing 6,000 dental procedures from cleanings, fillings, and extractions to root canals and even partial dentures. The Michigan Dental Association estimated the cost of all this work totaled $830,000. It was all free care.

Hearing those statistics makes the impact of the day sound coldly financial. Patient visits. Procedures completed. Cost of care. That is not the case at all. What you see when you volunteer is hard working people who are scared and in pain. They could be your grandparents, your cousin, your neighbor. The experience reinforced for me that having a healthy mouth matters to a person’s present and future, quality of life, and overall health. People regained the health of their mouth at this clinic. It was emotional.

Patient thank you noteLARRY, JOE, and DEBORAH

For a man I will call Larry, the clinic was a bit of divine intervention. He had been enduring a painful toothache for weeks. On Friday, he prayed for relief. At home eating lunch that day, he turned on the news -- which he doesn't normally watch – and happened to see a story about the free care clinic at Calvin College. Larry came and waited. The dentists examined his mouth, removed one severely infected tooth, and fixed up several others. How long would Larry have remained in pain? At what point would Larry have gone to the ER out of sheer necessity?

Then there is Joe, a really nice young father who said he hadn’t been to the dentist in over 10 years. That’s because he saves his money to make sure his children are able to get dental care every 6 months. This was Joe’s chance for help. He waited in line overnight to be one of the first people seen and then had multiple teeth extracted.

Noah Fromson of Grand Rapids’ WZZM Channel 13 found the truly moving story of Deborah Diaz. Because she suffers from lupus, Deborah has been on kidney dialysis for 11 years. Chronic illnesses take a toll on a person’s body and quality of life, and the impact on oral health can often be overlooked or deprioritized. It had been roughly five years since Deborah went to the dentist. One side effect of lupus is brittle bones, so yes, her teeth had suffered. But the fact that she needed dental work actually kept her off the waitlist for a kidney transplant. So she waited in line overnight and, when it was her turn, she had several teeth repaired and a crown. And because of that, she can now start the process for that kidney transplant. 


Sometime soon, there will likely be a Mission of Mercy in or near your state. And if there is, there will likely be volunteers from DentaQuest on hand to talk to patients, provide care, or help the day go smoothly. Our mission is improving the oral health of all. We hope that as people leave these free care clinics, they will take with them the name of a dental office or safety net clinic near their home so they can get regular dental care in the future.

Once people get their mouths back in good health, they’re much more aware of ways to stay healthy. I hope the good people we met at Calvin College have the opportunity to follow through on that -- the Mission of Mercy free care clinic won’t return to Michigan for another two years. If you know someone in need, please also point them to DentaQuest.com because everyone deserves access to care.

A warm smile is the universal language of kindness
William Arthur Ward