Mission of Mercy
Hundreds of patients wait for free dental care at the 2017 Oklahoma Mission of Mercy in Woodward, Oklahoma, on Saturday, Feb. 4. (William W. Savage III)

WOODWARD — It’s always jarring to see hundreds of people lined up at dawn for health care in the world’s richest nation.

Friday night, I traveled to Woodward to cover day two of the 2017 Oklahoma Mission of Mercy free dental-care weekend. OKMOM events are both a spectacle of enormous charity and a reminder of how hard it can be for working Americans to access oral health care.

“It’s a blessing,” said Jarod Garrison of Guymon. “I got like five teeth that are bad.”

Garrison sat behind dozens of other patients who were waiting for teeth to be extracted. He had arrived at 7 a.m. and was holding a red ticket denoting his place in line. While Garrison discussed his employment and background with me, patients are seen at Mission of Mercy events on a first-come, first-served basis, regardless of income, insurance or immigration status.

“Dental insurance is hard to keep up with these days. It’s expensive,” said Garrison, who does not have health insurance either. “I am a construction worker. We build homes and remodel houses. I just pay out of pocket when I go to the doctor and try not to get hurt.”

Garrison punctuated his answers to my questions with “yes, sir” and “no, sir,” his humility overshadowed only by his gratefulness for the care being provided by about 1,400 volunteers.

“My teeth just got bad over the years, and my plan after this is just to keep my teeth good so I don’t have to go through this again,” he said.

Dental education could be ‘silver bullet’

Mission of Mercy
A child fell asleep waiting for a parent to have teeth extracted at the 2017 Oklahoma Mission of Mercy event Saturday, Feb. 4, in Woodward, Oklahoma. (William W. Savage III)

Pop quiz: What causes cavities?

If you said sugar, you’d be wrong.

“One of the surprising things to many people is that bacteria causes it,” said Terrisa Singleton, director of the Delta Dental Oral Health Foundation of Oklahoma. “It’s an infectious bacteria, meaning if you drink after your child, if you allow your child to eat after you, the cavity-causing bacteria that’s been in your mouth for years is now introduced to their mouths. So you have that kind of transmission.”

Singleton believes better public knowledge about oral health care would dramatically improve Oklahoma’s dental crisis.

“The number one silver bullet would be education. I mean, from the very beginning (of life) because dental decay is largely preventable. Like 99 percent preventable,” she said Saturday inside the Woodward County Event Center. “If we were to have, perhaps, mandatory dental education in schools like they do in Texas — and I kind of hate the word mandatory — but the point is that it’s in every classroom, so kids are growing up knowing how to brush, why to brush, what to drink, how not to drink it. They need to learn all kinds of things to change the way they treat their mouths.”

Singleton said that kind of public health knowledge needs to be passed from generation to generation.

“If we were able to get to the kernel of this problem, it would save millions of dollars in the long run as well as lots of pain and effort,” she said.

‘Progressive’ dental disease can be fatal

Mission of Mercy
Dr. Edmund Braly, ODA president, talks to OKMOM patient Bobby Compton on Saturday, Feb. 4., in Woodward. Compton said he hoped his daughter would grow up to have better oral health care than he has had. (William W. Savage III)

You could say Singleton and I had met before.

From 2009 through 2014, I organized events in Oklahoma for Remote Area Medical, a group very similar to Mission of Mercy. The Delta Dental Oral Health Foundation has been the lead financial sponsor for all four RAM events in Oklahoma, as well as all OKMOM events.

This past weekend’s clinic marked the eighth Mission of Mercy event in the Sooner State. More than 1,200 people received high-quality dental care, lifting the effort’s lifetime patient total in Oklahoma to more than 13,000.

“It’s impossible to be healthy if your mouth’s not healthy,” said Dr. Edmund Braly, current president of the Oklahoma Dental Association. “You can’t eat well. You often times can’t speak well. There’s a lot of being healthy that’s about self-esteem.”

Braly is a Woodward native, and it’s no coincidence that his term heading the ODA brought the association’s signature charitable event to northwest Oklahoma. He agreed with Singleton that people need greater understanding of how to care for their mouths.

“Dental disease is a progressive disease. You don’t get a little bit of a cavity and then you just keep a little bit of a cavity. That cavity gets bigger and bigger and bigger until you either lose the tooth or it abscesses,” Braly said. “I’ve known in my career of two patients who died of a dental infection. They weren’t my patients, but I’m aware of them presenting to hospitals so late in the disease process that they didn’t survive.”

I didn’t observe any patients presenting with abscesses Saturday, but I’d seen it before. An immigrant family that spoke little English arrived late one afternoon for a RAM event at the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds, and one side of the mother’s face was so swollen that it looked like a softball had been implanted under her skin.

We helped the woman into the Oklahoma Dental Foundation’s Mobile Smiles unit for privacy, but her shrieks still escaped the large vehicle as a volunteer dentist from the U.S. Army drained the abscess. Other volunteer dentists waited outside, and they explained how the infection could have spread to her heart or brain. She was, they said, lucky to be alive.

‘Dental care is very expensive’

Mission of Mercy
Patients receive cleanings at the 2017 Oklahoma Mission of Mercy Saturday, Feb. 4, in Woodward. (William W. Savage III)

This weekend, patients I spoke to in Woodward felt lucky to have Mission of Mercy on site in the region.

“I think it’s awesome,” said Lindsey Shirley, a Woodward resident who arrived at 4:30 a.m. seeking fillings. “There’s a lot of people who don’t have dental insurance and can’t afford it, so I think it’s a wonderful thing that they’re doing this.”

Shirley said she has Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel condition that requires medication.

“I take an immune suppressor, so once I get one cavity, I get another one,” she said.

Braly had just finished talking to me about how patients’ oral health can be affected by other chronic conditions.

“There’s a correlation between diabetes and dental caries, even to the point where there’s a particular kind of dental caries that we call diabetic caries,” Braly said. “It happens mostly where the teeth meet the gums, and it turns the teeth a particularly black color. It’s difficult for patients with diabetes to fight off some infections. People with diabetes can’t muster their immune systems as well. They need extra care.”

Shirley, a mother of two, said she knows many people in need.

“I think that we need more access to dental care, especially kids,” Shirley said, noting that she makes sure her children get to the dentist even if she can’t afford to herself.

Sitting two seats away from Shirley was Debbie Anderson of Perryton, Texas.

“Moms always put the kids first,” said Anderson, who left her house at 3 a.m. to attend OKMOM. “Our dentist retired, and I took care of my kids first. Then I’m last. The X-ray tech said the same thing. They’ve got a lot of moms here today that did the same.”

Anderson said she had not been to a dentist in 15 to 20 years.

“Kids’ braces and all that stuff comes first,” she said. “Dental care is very expensive. It gets more expensive than regular medical. People put it off financially for that reason.”

‘Thank God my dad is still working’

Mission of Mercy — Woodward
Dr. Trent Yadon, top left, watches a volunteer play piano for patients. Lindsey Shirley, center with leg crossed, and Debbie Anderson, right, said they have put the dental care of their children ahead of their own needs. (William W. Savage III)

Anderson, Shirley and other patients to whom I spoke mentioned the region’s economic reliance on the oil and gas industry, which has been more bust than boom since late 2014. No doubt, that has made it harder for a northwest Oklahoma family’s ends to meet.

“It’s up and down, but it’s getting better slowly,” Shirley said of the local economy.

Anderson agreed.

“Our whole town has gone down, but like she said it’s picking back up,” Anderson said. “We’re oilfield-based and farm-based.”

Recent high-school graduate Estefania Aguirre was volunteering Saturday, mostly as a translator in the event’s pharmacy area. Her stepfather works in the oilfields.

“When the price of oil dropped, it’s made it difficult for some people,” Aguirre said. “They started firing people. Thank God my dad is still working.”

Aguirre came to the U.S. from Chihuahua, Mexico, with a passport and a visa four years ago and called Oklahoma “beautiful.”

“I know people who don’t really have a lot,” she said. “The Hispanic people who are here, I’m pretty sure they can’t afford the insurance. I can’t even afford it.”

‘I can get a tooth and I can smile?’

Mission of Mercy
Patients wrote thank you notes for volunteers at the 2017 Oklahoma Mission of Mercy Saturday, Feb. 4, in Woodward, Oklahoma. (William W. Savage III)

Dr. Trent Yadon of Woodward served as the 2017 event’s chairman, and he praised his community’s local support.

“You see the need,” Yadon said. “As a dentist, we know there’s unmet needs, but when you do an event like this, it’s eye-opening to see the number of people who are needing dental services.”

Yadon worked for months to organize the OKMOM event, a life-changing and stressful experience that I avoided telling him I understood.

People like Caryl Parsons, co-owner of Big Dan’s Steakhouse, helped as well. She said Yadon and her husband grew up together.

“Hospitality is what I do now, dentistry is what I did then,” Parsons said. “It’s kind of a perfect storm.”

Parsons worked for two decades managing a dental practice after graduating from OU in the 1980s. Her jaw nearly hit the floor upon realizing she and her husband had taken my father’s history class. It was the only class they took together — he got an A and she got a B — and she recalled the professor conducting a mock gunfight in the lecture hall to make a point about the popular culture of cowboys.

“He was hell on wheels,” she said.

Now, the Parsons’ own son is a second-year student at the OU College of Dentistry, and he was volunteering for the weekend.

“It’s trench dentistry,” she said. “One of my employees got treated yesterday. She walked in acutely decayed, but she left completely restored. This event for her is truly life-changing.”

Parsons wasn’t the only volunteer with tales of lives changing. Retired New York dentist Dr. Jane McElduff first started attending MOM events about 12 years ago. She volunteered this time as a dental assistant.

“There was a girl who came in with good teeth, but she had a root canal that was started,” McElduff said. “She needed the root canal finished and a crown, and she’s having both today. Now she’s not going to lose that tooth due to lack of money. And she’s young — 22, I think. Really beautiful.”

McElduff said she most appreciates patients — like Garrison — who receive treatment and leave with a new commitment to maintaining good oral health. She said she also appreciates the positivity of dental volunteers, as well as the happiness that patients feel.

“A woman came in with a tooth that had broken, and she had to have the root pulled,” McElduff explained during her lunch break. “I said, ‘We may be able to get you a replacement.’ She said, ‘I can get a tooth and I can smile?’ She was delighted. Delighted.”

The small world of northwest Oklahoma

Mission of Mercy
Dr. Jeff Pierce of Alva shakes hands with Mick Ferguson of Freedom. Ferguson worked with Pierce’s father at a salt factory before retirement. (William W. Savage III)

Over in oral surgery, Debbie Ferguson was helping her 64-year-old husband into a dental chair so he could have three teeth extracted.

“It’s an excellent program,” Ferguson said. A paramedic, she had volunteered the day before as well.

Her husband, Mick, said he had been in pain from his teeth.

“It’s been good,” he said as his jaw began to numb. “Everyone has been helpful.”

But before Dr. Jeff Pierce began his procedures, Mick Ferguson explained how he had retired from Cargill’s salt processing plant in Freedom, Oklahoma, where he and his wife live.

“He’s from Alva,” Ferguson said of Pierce. “And I worked with his dad in the salt division.”

In all, the patients and volunteers gathered in Woodward this weekend were roundly positive about the Mission of Mercy.

“I can tell you that before OKMOM got here, the anticipation was at a fever pitch,” Parsons said. “People were so excited. They couldn’t believe it was coming here. We know in Oklahoma that rural areas are under-served.

“Wherever they go with OKMOM now, there will be Woodward people. You can count on it.”