Hours before sunrise, people from every corner of the region were quietly standing in line, waiting to see a dentist in the annual Mid-South Mission of Mercy free clinic at Bellevue Baptist Church, April 1-2.
Among the hundreds of dentists who volunteer each year are dozens of faculty and students from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, up themselves before dawn to be in place at 5 a.m.
“I talked to a woman from northeast Arkansas who left home at 2 a.m. to make sure she was seen,” said Patrick Nabholz, a third-year dental student at UTHSC. “It really shows the need for dental care in this area.”
The annual clinic, sponsored by the Memphis Dental Society, Shelby County Dental Society, and Memphis Dental Hygienists’ Association, started in 2016 and has provided nearly $7 million worth of care to more than 11,000 patients.
The clinic opens each day at 6 a.m., when dozens of patients filed into the triage area for assessment and X-rays. From there, they received anesthesia for fillings, extractions or root canals and moved to one of several large rooms in the church where rows of 20 dental chairs were set up and staffed.
Others were sent to have casts made so they could have missing teeth restored before they left the clinic. “They come in toothless and leave with a smile,” said Orpheus Triplett, DDS, assistant dean of Community Oral Health and Outreach at UTHSC. “I like everything about the event. You have people out there at 3 or 4 in the morning, lining up, hoping they can be seen.”
Patients come from a half-dozen states, including Kentucky. Providers come from across Tennessee and beyond. Dr. Triplett served one year with a contingent of dentists and dental students from the University of Buffalo School of Dental Medicine in New York.
Dentists and hygienists volunteered in more than 30 areas of care, including triage, numbing, surgery, and sterilizing equipment. Of the 1,219 people who received care, dental professionals provided 1,480 extractions, 518 restorations and hundreds of cleanings for a total of more than $958,000 of free dentistry, or an average of $786 per patient.
The care takes all kinds of medical support, including nurses and pharmacists. Sara Speer, a doctor of nursing practice student in the Family Nurse Practitioner concentration in UTHSC’s College of Nursing, said the event was critical for people who would not otherwise be able to receive care.
One tearful patient she helped had been in rehabilitation. “The dental care is almost part of her recovery,” Speer said. “It touches people in different ways.”
Claire Anderson, also an FNP student, had served with Mission of Mercy in North Carolina and wanted to do it again. “The people all seem very grateful and happy to get their dental care taken care of,” she said. “We are taking vital signs and medical histories. They are interested in all the medical education we are providing.”
Pharmacy students were taking blood sugar readings and providing medication counseling. “Being able to talk to patients and counsel them on their meds is really a big deal,” said Khalae Branch, a UTHSC College of Pharmacy student from Memphis.
Taylor Garner, a UTHSC College of Dentistry student from Little Rock, Arkansas, could feel the relevancy for his own future practice.
“Helping take medical histories has given me a step into what it will be like in the clinic.”
Leigh Ann Roman contributed to this story.