Dentistry with Hope event provides free services and brighter smiles

The line stretches around the building of Willow Dental Care at the Dentistry of Hope event which provided free dental care to 114 people March 28. (Carol Lawson-Swezey)

The line started forming at 3 p.m. the afternoon before while the unseasonably hot sun beat down on the patient waiters. By the time the doors opened at 8 a.m. the next morning, more than 100 people waited for their turn.

Not to buy concert tickets, get free chicken or buy a new computer, but for something more basic: dental care; and more importantly to them, free dental care.

The vigil was for dental care offered through the Dentistry with Hope campaign, sponsored by Willow Dental Care at Willow and Herndon avenues on Saturday, March 28. The third annual event offered free dental services on a first-come, first-serve basis in hopes of guaranteed service to at least 100 patients.

The dental office’s staff and about 50 volunteers offered their services to provide either a dental cleaning, extraction or tooth filling. Dentists Dr. Shawn Anderson, Dr. Scott Fosse and Dr. Denver Eslinger and oral surgeon Dr. Aaron Noordmans performed services with the help of  dental professionals and students from San Joaquin Valley College, Kaplan College and Fresno State, who came to assist and watch procedures.

“Access to dental care is an issue all across the nation and even in our own backyard. Although there’s a great need in third world countries, there is just as great a need locally,” said Dr. Fosse.

For Dr. Anderson and his wife Tracey, the group’s marketing director, offering the free services is a long held call to serve. Tracey’s grandparents ran the Fresno Rescue Mission and Dr. Anderson volunteers with his children for monthly medical/dental missions with the Christian Medical Dental Association.

Tracey Anderson said their goal was trifold: to educate about the importance of preventative oral health care and provide for the patient’s immediate physical needs, as well as their spiritual ones.

Regardless of their reason for being there, those lined up at the Dentistry with HHHHope event were both grateful and relieved to get the opportunity for free dental care.

Camping overnight, Johnny held spot number three for his wife, Hope. Johnny spent the night in a tent, visiting with other first-in-liners until Hope came to take her place in line. She’d had a dental exam earlier in the month and was told she needed a filling. Having just paid off a $1,400 bill for a root canal, she decided to take advantage of the free service. Johnny, who was in the military, has dental coverage, but Hope does not.

Many in line were either uninsured or underinsured, including one young man who didn’t want to use his name. He had been suffering with an aching tooth for over a year.

“It’s getting so bad I can’t even eat tostadas,” he said. “If it wasn’t for this event, my last resort would be to go to Mexico and have a 12-year-old work on me with a hammer and pliers.”

College students Shara and Brianna both work part-time but have no dental coverage. They were accompanied by mom, Debi, who gave up her one Saturday off in six weeks to provide moral support.

“This service really helps,” master’s student Shara said. “School costs are so high.”

“I’m a nanny,” Brianna said. “I have no benefits and am taking advantage of this now with the hope that one day I can give back.”

Medicare doesn’t cover dental. Although dental coverage is offered to low-income adults through Denti-Cal, the oral health component of the state-funded Medi-Cal program, those benefits remain insufficient. It’s often difficult for patients to find a dentist willing to take the low reimbursement rates, or patients are unable to get a quick appointment.

About 100th in line, Jose, in debilitating pain for five days with an impacted wisdom tooth, hoped to get some relief with the free services while senior citizen Kathy waited a dozen people behind him for her turn. Kathy raises her two grandchildren and finds it difficult to make her dollars stretch.

“I looked into supplemental dental insurance,” Kathy said, “but it would have been $80 or more a month. Lack of coverage leaves us seniors in the closet.”

At the end of the line, hoping to get squeezed in, were cousins Danielle and Crystal, who drove up from Selma and Fowler.

Crystal has to pay out of pocket for all dental services and is grateful for the opportunity to get a cleaning, which normally costs anywhere from $60 to $200, for free.

“A lot of people don’t have money or insurance to afford these services,” Crystal said. “This is so important so people who desperately need it can take advantage.”

Dr. Anderson said the event “was a great day.”

“We heard many amazing stories of individual struggles that people are facing in their lives and we were blessed to be able to encourage them and offer them hope,” he said. “Our team of volunteers  all agreed that although it was a tiring day, the joy of serving those in need is more of a blessing to the givers than the receivers. The patients look forward to it every year, and so do we.”