Thousands show up for free dental care
Clinic a respite for people who are unemployed or uninsured
By Friday’s 6 a.m. opening, some had to be turned away.

By Eleanor Kennedy

Charlotte Observer, The (NC)
Posted: 2011-08-20
Section: Asection News
Edition: 1st
Page: 1A

Brenda Strickland is ready for a good night’s sleep.

The Pineville resident and mother of four spent Thursday night in the crowded halls and waiting rooms of the Charlotte Convention Center, camping out in preparation for the N.C. Dental Society’s free dental clinic.

Strickland, who’s been bothered for weeks by two painful abscessed teeth, is unemployed and uninsured. Her husband’s insurance covers their children, she said, but it’s too expensive to add her to the plan.

“For my family to have it, I’ll do without,” Strickland said.

Strickland arrived 12 hours before the clinic even opened. Hundreds, then thousands, of fellow uninsured and low-income area residents joined her. By 6 a.m. Friday, when the clinic opened, organizers had to turn people away.

Dr. Bill Blaylock, chair of N.C. Missions of Mercy, the nonprofit running the clinic, said organizers expect to be able to treat about 2,000 people at the 36-hour clinic, which runs until 6 p.m. today. By some counts, more than 2,500 people were waiting at the convention center before daybreak Friday.

This is the first Missions of Mercy clinic ever held in Charlotte. By today’s closing, organizers claim, it will be the largest free dental clinic ever held anywhere.

Inside, the patients who’d arrived early enough to make it in were all smiles. Many had waited at least 12 hours for help.

“It was worth it,” said Calvin Heyward, who showed up around 2 a.m. Friday.

Heyward hasn’t been to the dentist in almost a decade. Originally from New York, he moved to Charlotte about nine months ago to find a job. An electrician by trade, he’s been unemployed for 18 months.

Earlier this summer he visited a mobile dental van at the Urban Ministry Center because of a “nagging, throbbing” pain in his canine tooth.

A dentist told Heyward he needed more help than he could give, and advised him to come to the Dental Society clinic. After getting a root canal and a post built in his mouth on Friday, Heyward said he was incredibly grateful for the volunteers’ work.

“These guys were patient, professional and concerned,” Heyward said. “It was as if I was paying; I was treated that way.”

Organizers say 600 professional and 600 community volunteers will help during the weekend. Dentists are performing services ranging from fillings to root canals and, in some cases, wisdom teeth removals.

“They’re out there doing some of the most complicated dental procedures there are,” said clinic co-chair Dr. Evan Miller of Charlotte.

Some patients, turned away in the morning, sat outside for hours Friday in hopes of getting in.

“I know one thing, I ain’t leaving,” said Bernard, a man waiting outside who didn’t want to give his last name.

At 4 p.m., when word went out that more people would be let in, Bernard was first in line.

Free on-site pharmacy

At the clinic, community volunteers escorted patients from the massive, 2,000-chair waiting room to a series of smaller waiting areas and stations. After X-rays, prescreening and triage, patients were sorted into groups for different services.

Volunteers roamed rows of dental chairs, holding up signs whenever there was an open spot.

The clinic also included a pharmacy, where patients got all pain medications free of charge. At a mini-dental lab, technicians crafted more than 100 partial dentures.

Strickland left the center around noon Friday, after dentists pulled one of the teeth that was bothering her. She needs more work done, and she’s hoping to get a job with dental insurance soon. For now, though, things are looking up.

Said Strickland: “I’ve had many a sleepless night. Now I can finally get some rest.”

Want to go?

When: Until 6 p.m. today. (Organizers stopped letting patients in Friday night, but it was unclear if additional ones would be let in today.)

Where: Charlotte Convention Center, 501 S. College St.

What you’ll get: Patients arriving today will receive limited services, and only one major service will be performed per patient

Questions: N.C. Dental Society Office, 919-677-1396 or

Patient Michael Kilgo, 48, from Charlotte receives dental service from Dr. Don Franklin and assistant Kathy Harrison at the Charlotte Convention Center Friday as part of the N.C. Missions of Mercy free dental clinic, which ends at 6 p.m. today.

Many who made it inside the Convention Center Friday had waited at least 12 hours. “It was worth it,” said Calvin Heyward, who showed up around 2 a.m.

PHOTOS BY Davie Hinshaw –