May 5, 2014 -- There were already about 500 people waiting on a cool, rainy morning when Gary Glasband, DDS, arrived at 4:45 a.m. for the California Dental Association's (CDA) recent CDA Cares free dental clinic in Vallejo, CA.
Dr. Glasband, a Long Beach, CA, dentist and member of the CDA Cares management committee, was one of nearly 1,800 volunteer dentists, hygienists, dental assistants, nurses, and lab technicians who provided $1.5 million in dental services to almost 2,000 people during the two-day clinic in Solano County in April.
After having their vital signs checked and getting x-rays, patients were questioned about what medications they were taking to ensure that they could safely have dental surgery, which many of them needed.
The majority of patients got restorations, but many teeth were too far gone and needed to be extracted. For the lucky ones, root canals were done when possible to save teeth. Many received stay plates to fix broken dentures and replace missing teeth.
"We ask patients, 'What's the most important to you? What do you want done?' " Dr. Glasband explained. "We try to prioritize things and control pain."
Often, what patients wanted most was to improve their appearance. "Sometimes people will put up with pain and infection, but they'd rather replace missing teeth," he said.
Dr. Glasband saw lots of broken-down teeth and infections during the clinic. Broken and ill-fitting dentures also were common.
One of saddest cases was a young, pretty woman who had a mouthful of problems. "We were thinking, 'This is a crummy circumstance. How can we get this to a win?' " he recalled.
Dentists were able to do composite restorations on her front teeth. "When she looked in the mirror, she broke down in tears," Dr. Glasband said of the grateful woman.
"Sometimes you do an extraction, place a couple of fillings, and clean their teeth," he said. "Sometimes you can only do one thing. It depends on how complicated it is."
For Doug Fountain, a 52-year-old disabled man who came from Sacramento, the clinic was a life-changing experience. He had gone without teeth after having them all extracted 18 months ago because he had no way to get dental care. Without lower teeth, the bony ridge in his jaw had eroded, leaving the bottom half of his face caved in.
Thanks to Lawrence Wallace, DDS, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon who has devised a one-hour denture technique, Fountain left with a full set of dentures.
"I feel and look so much better," Fountain said. "There are a million reasons how this helped me."
He was so grateful that he's pledging to volunteer at the CDA clinic in Southern California in November.
Dr. Wallace made 81 dentures for patients during the two-day clinic. He developed the Larell one-hour denture system to help the growing number of people across the U.S. who have been unable to afford dental care.
Alan Felsenfeld, DDS, director of the University of California, Los Angeles Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery clinic, said many patients who came to the clinic are ill and have comorbidities, including high blood pressure and diabetes, or they are taking blood thinners.
One man in a wheelchair had a history of cancer and had received radiation treatment, opening the potential for the development of osteonecrosis in his jaw, Dr. Felsenfeld noted. He was so sick he was taken to a medical center for treatment.
He recounted the gratitude expressed by many who got much-needed dental care. "One man was down on his luck and said he couldn't get work or eat because he was in pain and missing teeth," Dr. Felsenfeld. "He said, 'Thank you so much for what you've done for me.' "
Another patient, Cheryl, a disabled woman who came from Central California to the clinic, had two teeth extracted, a root canal, and partial dentures on the top and bottom of her mouth. "I kept having abscesses, but this will take care of the infection," she said. "And I'll be able to eat."
Yvonne Johnson-Webb brought her three children to the clinic after hearing about it on the news. She had the filling replaced on a broken molar, and her daughter, Crystal, got two fillings.
"They did a very good job, and I feel so much better," Yvonne Johnson-Webb said. "My teeth were so jagged it was cutting my tongue. I'm very grateful."
Dr. Wallace noted that in May, California will resume dental services for low-income adults on Medicaid, known as Denti-Cal. One of the most valuable aspects of the program, he said, will be the $900 reimbursement for a set of dentures. "Dentists can still make a profit and service people who need dentures," he noted. The average cost for a set of dentures is about $3,400.
"While the state has taken a positive first step with the partial restoration of adult Denti-Cal, the need for an adequately funded dental safety net is evident at each of these events," said CDA President James Stephens, DDS. "We need a state dental director, as proposed in the governor's revised budget, to develop and manage a state oral health plan that includes prevention programs and applying for federal dollars to support the oral health of Californians."
As Dr. Felsenfeld paused between patients, he explained why hundreds of oral health professions volunteered for two long days of treating people who had nowhere else to turn for their painful and debilitating dental problems.
"This is like the heart of what we do," Dr. Felsenfeld said. "Looking out to the world and saying, 'How can we help?' "