in a narrow twisting mountain valley
in an elementary-middle school a few miles outside the small town
in the poorest county in Virginia, with 4 dentists for 26,000 people, 3 well over retirement age, and only one who will take Medicaid
today we saw and treated hundreds of people
we have already screened 59 who will get treatment tomorrow, some of whom got cleanings today, tomorrow to get fillings, root canals, extractions
today I spent over 14 hours helping dentists be of service to people in need
today, doing little but pushing paper, my part in this process, however small it was, did more for the health of Americans in need than the Republicans in Congress (and some of the Blue Dogs) have done in several decades.
I ask that you continue reading.
This event, like the annual event each July in Wise, is a joint endeavor with Stan Brock’s better known Remote Area Medical project. The Mission of Mercy is outreach and service by dentists, in this case the Virginia Dental Association, through its Virginia Dental Foundation. At joint events MOM treats more people than RAM, but is far less well known – which means it also gets less news coverage (although we had two Virginia television stations present today) and as a result far less in donations.
This is my second time at Grundy, my 6th Dental event in 16 months since I first volunteered at Wise in July, 2009. By now I am a known quantity, a recognizable face, a trusted worker. For example, I am not allowed to die tonight, because sitting on the table next to my bedside at the Appalachian Inn, several hundred feet up the side of the valley, is that collection of pink sheets for the 60 patients returning tomorrow. I am expected to be on site with them by 5:10 tomorrow morning, and only then will I be allowed to pass on, no matter how severe any medical condition might become this evening.
At each event I see familiar faces – among the dentists, the X-ray technicians, some of the dental and hygiene students, the other lay volunteers. Some are family members of dentists, some community members, some – like me – people who have taken this on as a Mission of Mercy that is an important part of their being human, of caring for other people.
The community here is not rich. They are generous. Our accomodations are paid for. They provide food on site. This morning I stopped at a Hardee’s on my way to the site to fill up my coffee container, since the coffee on site would not be ready until after 5:30. I was buying nothing else, but it did not matter, because the lady running the place would not let me pay for it, pointing at my volunteer page and saying “honey, just go ahead and fill it up.”
I see pain and suffering. I also see hope and trust. I am honored to be able to do this work. Other than my teaching, it is more important than anything else I do, certainly more important than these words I now write.
Except this – these words will be read by others. Some will have read other diaries I have written about these events. But for others, this will be their first encounter.
So let me point out a few things.
Even many people who have medical insurance do not have dental insurance.
Unlike other nations, we do not combine health above the neck – dental, mental, vision, hearing – with health below the neck. Sometimes it therefore goes unaddressed, and the consequences of that can be quite costly, not merely in dollars, but in the loss to those persons whose conditions do not get treated in time to save functionality of teeth, whose vision or hearing goes uncorrected throughout their school years, and so on.
Virginia is now piloting sending oral hygienists into schools, to educate, to do some screening, to distribute tooth brushes. In this part of America there is an unfortunate tradition of poor oral hygiene. MOM is part of addressing it.
There is much dental we cannot do. We are limited in the endotontics we can do on site. We can do no perio, even as poor as the health of many of the gums that we encounter. Nor can we do crowns, or orthodontics (although 2 people who had run out of money partway through their orthodontic treatment at least had their braces removed today).
Mercy – caring for other without judgment
Mission – in part there is some evangelizing, that is, in encouraging people – not to give up on teeth that can be saved. It is also a mission for those of us who serve, to help as many people in as many ways as the hands and time of the trained professionals who volunteer will allow.
Today many who read these words were on a different kind of mission, to bring a message to the nation by coming to Washington. I hope they felt a sense of accomplishment. What they did was important. I hope it got publicity. I hoped those at whom the messages were aimed paid attention.
Today I was a small part of serving several hundred people.
Today we alleviated some pain.
Today we saved a lot of teeth.
Today we removed far too many teeth for which it was too late to do anything else.
Today I remember this – it is the tale of the boy seen taking beached starfish and throwing them back in the sea. The beach is strewn with them hundreds and hundreds. A man says “Little boy, don’t you know you cannot save all these starfish?” The boy answers, “I know, but I can save these” as he continued to reach down, pick up and throw yet more starfish back into the sea.
Today we saved some starfish.
We wish we could have saved more. But today we saved some.