Last weekend, more than 1,000 people waited in line — some overnight — to see a dentist.
Millions of Americans lack access to dental care and patients with poor oral health have a higher risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer. In Pittsburgh, an annual free clinic provides care to adults and children who can’t otherwise afford it.
Gregory Pflumm was among those waiting at the clinic. He’s an Army veteran who says he gets most of his medical care at the local VA hospital, but isn’t eligible for dental coverage. He got in line for the clinic at PPG Paints Arena around 4 a.m.
“I’m pretty much a medical experiment,” Pflumm said. “Anything that they can help me out with helps me later on to be able to afford the rest of whatever I need.”
Pflumm was among more than 1,300 people who attended the clinic and waited hours for a check-up. The floor of the arena was dotted with volunteers and dentists in pastel blue, yellow, pink and green scrubs. Once patients entered the facility, they were triaged and sent to color-coded sections, which correlated to different types of care: oral surgery, pediatric, and fillings. Dentist Dave Sullivan says the clinic isn’t equipped to treat every oral issue, but tries to give patients the best care possible. And if they aren’t able to do it at the clinic, organizers help the patients find somewhere else that does.
“There's no greater reward that you're going to have than putting a smile on somebody's face,” Sullivan said.
This was the clinic’s third year and it’s become one of the largest of its kind in the U.S. The dentists and volunteers try to put the patients at ease; they crack jokes and ask goofy questions and try to maintain a casual vibe. After all, many patients have never been to the dentist before.
Dentist Keith Young has been with the clinic since the beginning. He says everyone who interacts with the patients is trained to make the experience comfortable. It’s a long day, but for many patients, this will probably be their only visit this year.
“They’re coming in, they’re waiting in line for four or five hours, they’re in this big arena and they’re going to have teeth pulled,” Young said. “That’s scary. It really is. We try to make it as comforting as we possibly can when they come through.”
Each year, Young says organizers ask participants about their dental pain and motivation for coming to the clinic. In 2018, 45 percent of patients said they had issues such as a toothache or a problem with their dentures for more than a year. About one-quarter of those surveyed said they’d visited the emergency room for temporary relief.
“They have nowhere else to go, so they go to the emergency room and they don’t get treated,” Young said. “All they get is pain meds and some antibiotics and then they leave. So the problem still exists.”
After the clinic, patients meet with others in the health care field who can connect them to a regular dentist or follow-up care. Providers offer preventative services and talk with patients about how to manage their oral health going forward. Patient Darlene Allen said after her visit, she was already planning to schedule more.
“I learned that a lot of other stuff can happen to you if you don’t keep your teeth in good condition,” Allen said. “I don’t want that.”
Clinic organizers say it’s unfortunate that so many people can’t afford to go to the dentist, but they’ll continue to provide what they can until that changes.