BY ANNE CENTERS
My heart sank as I drove into the packed parking lot of Biltmore Baptist Church in Arden at 6:55 a.m. Hurriedly gathering my belongings, I joined a long line. On this cool, cloudy morning, the 40ish blond woman in front of me had wrapped herself in a gray blanket. She’d driven for an hour to take advantage of the Missions of Mercy free dental clinic.
We waited quietly, though hungry hands grabbed the glazed doughnuts dispensed by a volunteer. The blond woman shook out her already tired legs; unwittingly, we’d signed up for a marathon of standing and waiting. A female volunteer said the clinic had seen 500 people the previous day.
Dentists wearing black scrubs strolled by, rested and raring to go. I was grateful for their willingness to assist people without dental insurance — the poor whom our politicians have forsaken. In this crazy system, if you earn little, you pay lots. Our governor refused federal money to expand Medicaid, and although I have a master’s degree and was a teacher, I never worked more than a year in one place, so I have no pension. My meager monthly income comes solely from my deceased ex-husband’s Social Security; Obamacare would cost more than half of it.
Therefore, at age 63, I’ve learned to navigate the existing channels for free care: the Minnie Jones Health Center, Project Access and the Health Department. The other day, I had skin cancer scraped and burned off through Project Access, which I found through Minnie Jones. On my Facebook, I’ve had four or five people asking for money to help with medical bills. This country is in a sorry state when people can’t afford procedures to keep them healthy.
The line snaked around the red-brick building. The blond woman struck up a conversation with a whiskered man, and I joined in. Two hours later, we’d reached the door, where a policewoman was letting in 10 people at a time. After filling out a registration form and having my blood pressure and pulse taken, I followed signs back outside — and onto another long line, where I shivered under a cloudy sky.
X-rays were being taken in a truck parked at the curb. An old lady with badly swollen ankles was given a metal folding chair and seated in front of me. Each time the line moved, she struggled to stand up, scraped her chair forward, then plopped back down. I snagged the doughnut volunteer, who promptly moved her to the front of the line. A dark-haired guy named Doug gave me a thumbs-up.
Off to the side, a man was barbecuing for us: A teasing aroma hung in the air. Scanning the growing line, I noticed an African-American man with a carved walking stick and a woman wearing pink sweatpants. Behind me, a man named JJ complained that being half-disabled in the war left him ineligible for veterans dental coverage. He pointed to his back, where shrapnel had been removed, and to his expensive hearing aid, both issues caused by an exploding bomb. Our impromptu group began a lively discussion about the state of the country.
Approaching the promised land, we were jovial — until the doughnut man announced an hour or two delay before they resumed taking X-rays. People scattered; it was now 11:10 a.m. The blond woman spread her blanket on the sidewalk and we sat down, determined. The doughnut volunteer formed a line for people needing extractions: Almost everyone behind us would now be getting X-rayed first, and grumbling arose in our ranks. Should we even continue to wait?
Then they announced, “People wanting cleanings stand here.” Although I wondered if I had cavities, I decided to cut my losses and was third in line.
Paraded into the dimly lit building, we received yellow wristbands, gave our names to a woman clutching a legal pad and sat in plastic chairs.
Forty-five minutes later, I asked for an update and was told that a new group of hygienists would soon arrive; at high noon, my name was called. Speed-walking behind the long-legged assistant, I was deposited at yet another building on the huge campus. When the door opened, I felt like Alice falling down the rabbit hole: 80 open-mouthed patients in dental chairs filled the bright, cavernous room. Dentists wearing white masks and yellow, blue or green gowns tended to their patients; pounding music pervaded the space. I snapped two pictures and asked the young mop top next to me what he needed. Opening his mouth wide, he pointed to his stained front teeth and the cavities in back. A girl walked by carrying a red 5-gallon bucket of hazardous waste. The big clock on the wall read 12:10 p.m.
Directed down an aisle, I gave Samantha, the hygienist, my paperwork and sat in a portable dental chair. She began using an ultrasound tool to remove the plaque, and my body jumped. Had she struck a nerve? Now in full pain alert, I tried to relax; then it happened again. I sat on my hands and tried to breathe slowly. The third time felt like an electric shock. Was it really worth all this to save $25?
But before I could bolt out of the chair, she switched to the old-fashioned scraping tool and gently completed the cleaning, while “Flashdance” permeated the room.
Collecting my paperwork, I headed down the aisle feeling shellshocked. A cluster of dentists, arms folded, looked directly at me. That was my chance to thank them, I realized later, but I’d been too overwhelmed to speak.
It was now 1:15 p.m.; still hoping to get X-rays, I drove over to the truck. But because I’d already turned in my paperwork, they wouldn’t take me. The blond woman was standing by the door, however, poised to go in; I wished her luck.
Then I got back in my car and left, feeling grateful to everyone who’d donated their time and money to accommodate those of us who’ve fallen through the cracks.
To learn more about the Mission of Mercy Outreach Dental Program, visit ncdental.org. Anne Centers lives in Asheville.