Tooth and nail

Filling a need: About 700 people received free dental care at a makeshift clinic in A-B Tech’s gym. Veteran Kevin Riley and many others waited in line for more than 12 hours. Photos by Jonathan Welch

About 100 people waited outdoors all night for a shot at free dental care during an Aug. 5 clinic at A-B Tech. Dentists from the Asheville area and beyond donated their time to serve hundreds of community members in need, and organizers said it shows how much can be achieved when people team up to help the less fortunate. But the high turnout, they noted, points to underlying economic hardship and a dysfunctional health-care system.

Folks started showing up at 3 p.m. on Aug. 4, hoping to get free cleanings, fillings, extractions and other care the next day. Organized by the North Carolina Dental Society, Eblen Charities, A-B Tech and other partners, the makeshift clinic was set up in the Coman Student Center gym, staffed by some 50 volunteering dentists and hygienists.

Kevin Riley showed up at the community college at 2:30 a.m. after walking an hour-and-a-half from his home across town.

"I figured I'd be first to get here, but there was already about a hundred people here," he reported while watching others being treated. "But overall, it's well worth it, because I have a toothache; they're going to restore it. It's been positive, friendly for the most part, well-organized."

As a veteran, Riley qualifies for other free and reduced-cost medical care at the VA Medical Center, but for dental care, "This is the only choice I have," he explained.

Others shared similar stories as they sat on the bleachers awaiting their turn.

Unemployed Asheville resident Sylvia Donaldson had been there since 4 a.m., waiting to have a filling restored.

"I had no other place to turn, and I heard about this, and it was a blessing. I was happy to be able to come here, and I don't care how long I have to wait," she explained. "I heard some people bitching about how long it's taken, but I'm not going to kick a gift horse in the mouth."

Donaldson was on track to have her dental work done by the end of the day, but not everyone was so lucky.

Rilla Wisor of Old Fort arrived at the clinic with her family at 11 the previous evening, but that was already too late for her to get the partial dentures she was hoping for. Instead, she spent the day knitting as she waited for her children to get care she estimated would save her "hundreds if not thousands of dollars."

Sign of the times

All told, some 700 people received about $320,000 worth of services, said Bill Murdock, Eblen Charities’ executive director.

Still, countless others were turned away, he said regretfully, noting, "It's always going to be too many. We tried to see as many as we possibly could."

Bill Waddell of Eblen called the overwhelming turnout a sign of the times, adding that the line was bigger this year than it had been at the 2010 inaugural event. "People's funds are tight; the economy's terrible. People can't afford to go to the dentist," he explained.

Murdock said organizers are already looking at how they could serve more people at next year’s clinic, tentatively scheduled for the second weekend of August in the same location. Support from local businesses and others has been overwhelming, he said, with donations of everything from electrical generators to bottled water and snacks.

"The need is there. … It's a tale of our time right now,” Murdock observed. “But it gives everyone an opportunity to come together. It's a wonderful testament to our community."

Likewise, Rep. Heath Shuler sounded a similar note, calling the clinic a step in the right direction. "When you have thousands of people show up for free dental care, then we've got a problem,” said Shuler, who was present at the clinic and served as the event’s chair.

“But government's not the solution to every problem," he asserted. "If we can take care of problems like this in our own communities, then we wouldn't need more government. … This is what makes America strong: helping our neighbors. … This makes you feel proud to live in Western North Carolina, that we take care of our own."

— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at jfrankel@mountainx.com.

Send your health-and-wellness news to mxhealth@mountainx.com or news@mountainx.com.

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About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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