Scores of people began lining up Friday afternoon in order to secure a once-a-year opportunity for dental care on Saturday.
The day marked Dr. John Gravitte’s fifth year of participation in the Dentistry from the Heart program in which people in need of dental care, but who cannot afford it, are treated for no charge.
Potential patients began arriving as early as 3:30 p.m. Friday, lining the streets surrounding Gravitte’s office off Galax Trail near Northern Wellness and Fitness. The event is strictly first-come, first-served, and needy patients are willing to wait overnight in their cars, the place where they are parked marking their spot in line.
Lowes Food provided fresh apples and bananas for patients during their long wait. Coffee and water were also available. Portable toilets were set up to make an overnight car camp easier to get through.
“A lot of people need help, and a lot of these people are in pain,” said Amanda Fretwell, marketing director for Dr. Gravitte. “We try to be as efficient as possible and see as many people as we can.”
As of 9 a.m. Saturday, 96 people were either waiting in line, or were in the process of being seen. The number of people waiting is monitored so that everyone waiting in line is seen, according to Fretwell.
Dr. Gravitte enlisted a dental school classmate, Dr. Sam Hayes of Asheville (an oral surgeon) and his wife, Dr. Sapna Hayes, as well as Dr. Angela Cassar of Clemmons and Dr. Laura Phelps of Kernersville, to help care for the large number of patients that turn out each year.
Eighty volunteers were present, including Gravitte’s employees, Mount Airy High School’s HOSA (Health Occupations Students of America) Club students, Surry Community College nursing students, University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s Dental Club, students from Forsyth Technical College and Wilkes Community College’s dental assisting program, and hygienists and dental assistants who work for other dentists. Along with the professional and student volunteers, patient volunteers also lend a hand. Half of the volunteers have participated all five years since the event began.
Fretwell said that they were hoping to see more than 120 patients, up from 114 last year, but that it depended on the kinds of cases they have. In the end, 117 patients were seen, but the number of procedures per person was doubled from the prior year, according to preliminary totals.
Patients are given a choice of services: they can get a cleaning, a filling or an extraction. With an oral surgeon present, even complicated extractions are possible.
“If a patient has a cracked tooth and needs more invasive treatment, Dr. (Sam) Hayes can assist,” said Fretwell.”
In addition to the treatment of their choice, patients all received X-rays, a dental hygiene gift bag and an oral cancer screening.
“Rates of oral cancer in our area are very high,” said Fretwell, “and everyone gets a painless, two-minute exam. The Highway 52 corridor has the highest rate of oral cancer in the entire United States, and we also have the highest population of young adults with oral cancer. Educating parents and kids about that risk is very important.”
Linda Cockerham of Claudville, Virginia, was among the first people in line. Last year, she was at the very front of the line. She’s gotten cleanings both years, and has been coming every year since she saw a news story about the free clinic.
“They’re going to make me pretty,” she said. Cockerham added that as one of seven children (five boys and two girls) growing up on a farm, she didn’t have the best opportunities for dental care back then.
“I’d have pretty teeth like you do, if I’d taken care of them,” she said to her hygienist for the day, Whittley McMillian, as McMillian put on her mask and went to work, ending the possibility of further comment from Cockerham.
At the first Dentistry from the Heart in 2014, Fretwell said people still remember how cold it was. There was sleet and snow, and she was grateful for the good weather this year. There were only 30 volunteers that first year, and as the number has grown, the capacity to serve more people has, too.
“We try to make a difference in our community,” she said.