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Volunteer dentists hold 2-day W. Va. event

HEDGESVILLE, W.Va. -- Some came with cracked teeth. Others described theirs as rotten. One man chipped his while eating ice. Another — improbably — while eating a cheeseburger.

“I thought there was a piece of bread caught in my teeth,” said Jeff Coonrod, 37, of Charles Town, W.Va. “So I tried to get it out, and there was nothing there.”

Most hadn’t been to the dentist in at least five years. All cited the same reasons: too expensive, no dental insurance, ignored it until it hurt.

Through a free dental clinic organized by the United Way and the Virginia Dental Association, all they needed to get care in this small town 90 miles northwest of Washington was a little patience.

More than 300 were in line when Berkeley County’s Hedgesville High School opened at 6:00 a.m. Saturday for the second and final day of the Mission of Mercy. Some had waited since midnight. Others had teeth pulled or repaired the day before and had come back for more work. More than 1,100 people were treated during the two days, said Terry Dickinson, executive director of the Virginia Dental Association. An army of 700 volunteers from Berkeley and the surrounding counties transformed the high school into a MASH-like dental facility.

Nurses took vital signs by hallway lockers. Dentistry students in the school’s trophy-adorned foyer poked about in patients’ mouths and sent them off for X-rays, repair work or extractions. Such was the lot of 29-year-old Mike Waugh of nearby Berkeley Springs, W.Va. Sitting under a basketball hoop on the edge of the gym floor, crowded with 50 volunteer dentists, their assistants and tools, he talked about the four teeth he thought he was about to lose.

“On a pain scale from one to 10, the past couple of nights have been a 10,” he said. In the past, he’d broken his leg, his hand and his finger, but none, he said, hurt as much as his teeth. “It’s unbearable,” he said. “Your leg, you can prop it up. You can’t prop your mouth up.”

Waugh’s work as a self-employed floorer supports his wife and four children, he said, but doesn’t bring in enough for health insurance, much less dental care. His wife earns US$8 an hour in day care. She, too, gets no benefits.

A volunteer escorted him to a chair. The dentist looked at his folder and said he’d pull four teeth. Waugh leaned back and opened wide. The dentist reached for the forceps.

Dickinson said he organized the first Mission of Mercy in July 2000 after leaving his private practice in search of “something more.” He has since helped organize 37 clinics, mostly in Virginia, but also in Texas, Kansas, Iowa and other states.

The Hedgesville clinic, his first in the state, was funded by a US$36,000 grant from a local philanthropist.

Dickinson estimates that the mass clinics can serve each patient for US$15. This is substantially less than the US$450 to US$500 he said is the average for dental visits. He estimates that the 1,100 people going through the clinic in two days will have gotten more than US$500,000 worth of care.

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