From left, Janet Cordell replaces patient Daryl Bottoms' gauze Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019, at the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds. A nurse, Cordell is in her fourth year as a Mission of Mercy volunteer. (Trinity Cohee)

Dental students, nurses, and volunteers lined the wall next to the exit of the Expo Hall at the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds. Armed with matching t-shirts and handouts showing proper dental hygiene techniques, patient advocates funneled those finished with treatment into the chairs across from them. Joyful, teary-eyed Oklahomans with fewer teeth, clean teeth, or new teeth were being instructed on how to care for their new smiles.

“The best prevention (of cavities) is just brushing and flossing twice a day, making sure you try to stay away from sugary drinks and a lot of carbs, and taking care of your teeth and getting regular check-ups,” Tulsa Community College dental hygiene student Marissa Doll said over the whir of dental instruments. “Oral health is part of your overall health.”

Thousands of people visited State Fair Park in Oklahoma City this weekend to receive free dental care at the 10th annual Oklahoma Mission of Mercy. OKMOM is a free, two-day dental clinic that travels to a different Oklahoma location each year to provide care on a first-come, first-served basis.

On Jan. 31, Thursday night, patients began camping out in hopes of receiving free care early Friday morning. The event’s doors were open from 5 a.m. to about 6:30 p.m. Friday and from 5 a.m. to about 5 p.m. on Saturday.

“First come, first serve,” said Dr. Chris Fagan, Oklahoma Mission of Mercy chairman. “We strive to treat about 1,000 patients a day. This is a MASH-style clinic where we’re going to address the patient’s greatest need.”

Those needs met at OKMOM can include fillings, extractions, cleanings and implants.

Patient: ‘I’ve never had dental insurance’

Volunteers work on patients at Oklahoma Mission of Mercy on the morning of Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019. Morning volunteers had to arrive by 5 a.m. (Trinity Cohee)

Many people seeking treatment do not have or can not afford dental insurance, said Terrisa Singleton, Delta Dental of Oklahoma Oral Health Foundation director.

“I haven’t been to the dentist since I was 11,” said Tia Trujillo, a 25-year-old who had a tooth pulled and received a full cleaning. “I’ve never had dental insurance, so I can’t pay hundreds of dollars out of my pocket.”

Trujillo said that, without OKMOM, she might have left her dental health on a back burner for another 15 years.

Jonathon Thomas, a patient who had three teeth pulled and implants put in to replace them, said he wouldn’t have had access to such care otherwise.

“It’s so impossible to pay for your medical bills nowadays, even with insurance,” Thomas said. “I met some people yesterday that have insurance, and they still can’t afford the procedures. It’s nice to have a way for all of us to come and enjoy this.”

Organizers of OKMOM said they believe access to dental care is a critical issue for Oklahomans.

“It’s important to us as dental providers to treat the whole community, and if you look at the community, there’s a population that doesn’t get to the dentist regularly,” Fagan said.

OKMOM: Organizations step in to help

In supporting the Oklahoma Dental Association, the Delta Dental of Oklahoma Oral Health Foundation stands as one of OKMOM’s largest sponsors.

“The foundation’s role is to help the people that don’t have dental insurance, and that’s almost 50 percent of Oklahomans,” said Singleton. “We will do this as long as it’s needed, but we will feel the greatest success when the time comes that Oklahomans will get access to the dental care they need in a dignified and humane and regular manner.”

While the main purpose of the event was to offer free dental care for those who need it, another purpose was to educate patients about upkeep and prevention to keep their mouths healthy.

Volunteers go over hygiene handouts with patients during the 2019 Oklahoma Mission of Mercy on Saturday, Feb. 2, at the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds. Patients took home floss, toothpaste, and a toothbrush. (Trinity Cohee)

OKMOM’s clinic featured two areas for dental education, set up at the entrance and exit of the Expo Hall.

Volunteers sat in front of posters entitled “Tobacco and Drug Use”, and “The Impacts of Poor Dental Health” as they brought out plastic teeth to show patients how to brush properly.

“When it comes to dental disease, it’s like 99 percent preventable,” Singleton said. “If you can educate people to actually take care of their teeth to begin with, all of this is avoidable.”

That doesn’t mean people can entirely forego the dentist’s office, however. Fagan said prevention is important, but brushing and flossing alone cannot replace regular hygiene check-ups recommended every six months.

He compared leaving an infection in your mouth to leaving an infection on your arm and emphasized that letting an infection linger negatively affects your body.

“Our hope is that they see the value in this and the value to their health, and that they find a provider and start getting regular dental care,” Fagan said.

Patients expressed gratitude for the oral health crash-course.

“I got a little bit more information and a little bit more educated on how to brush my teeth, how to take care of them,” Trujillo said. “It was well worth it.”

Trinity Cohee is a journalism major at the University of Oklahoma's Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication. She completed an editorial internship at NonDoc in June 2019 and continues to contribute freelance content.