By Josh Letner
Joplin dentist Charles McGinty was spending a relaxing Sunday afternoon at home when he received a call that put a stop to the relaxation.
The caller told McGinty that a tornado had ripped through Joplin and damaged his office at 27th Street and McClelland Boulevard.
“I didn’t even know the tornado had happened,” he said Friday. “When I went down there that night, the office was no longer there.”
McGinty said he quickly realized that the tornado had created a major crisis for Joplin’s entire dental community.
“I could stand in the parking lot of my office and see that all of my colleagues’ offices were also gone, so I knew this was a significant problem,” he said. “That night, I called the Missouri Dental Association and told them, ‘We have a problem and we are going to need your help.’”
Twenty-five Joplin dentists were affected by the May 22, 2011, tornado. Paul Roberts, with the Missouri Dental Association, said Friday that he arrived in Joplin 10 days later and began the task of determining which dentists needed assistance and to what degree.
Roberts said the MDA formed a leadership committee and began the task of organizing the resources and donations that were pouring into Joplin from dentists across the country.
McGinty said Roberts attended meetings and did a great job of processing information and providing local dentists with what they needed to know.
Roberts said he was impressed by the dentists’ universal desire to rebuild and continue working in the community.
“What struck me was their absolute commitment to this community,” he said. “They never thought of doing anything other than rebuilding as soon as they could to see their patients and deliver good care.”
Roberts said most dentists also found their own way to get back on their feet.
“Dentists, by their nature, are pretty independent creatures,” he said. “They didn’t need a lot of help. They know their community, and they found ways to work and ways to get back.”
For McGinty, it only took one call to a friend and colleague to find a new home.
“My first call was to Newt Sharp, who practices on Fourth and Pearl. I told him my office was destroyed and asked if he would take me in, and he did,” McGinty said.
Roberts said the many unaffected Joplin dentists who opened their doors to their colleagues deserve special recognition for helping the dental community to recover. He said within a couple of months of the storm almost all local dentists were seeing patients again.
“By mid-July, 95 percent of them were back and functioning to some degree, and over the last year we have been helping them with the transition to new offices,” he said.
In recognition and celebration of the dental community’s resurgence, the Missouri Dental Association presented a check for $3,000 to the Community Clinic in a small ceremony Friday morning. The Community Clinic provides medical and dental services to uninsured members of the community.
Barbara Bilton, director of the Joplin Community Clinic, said such donations are important to the clinic because it does not receive federal or state funding. Bilton said the clinic is funded by private grants and personal donations that comprise roughly 18 percent of the clinic’s $750,000 annual budget.
McGinty said the community clinic plays an important role because it gives lower-income residents a place to go to get emergency and preventive dental care.
“They go to the emergency room, but there is no care available to them there, so this clinic gives the hospitals somewhere to send people who are in need of dental care,” he said.
McGinty said dental disease is “100 percent preventable” if patients seek preventative care, but Bilton said all too often that is not the case.
“Unfortunately, many of our patients come to us as a place of last resort, so the cancer is always advanced, the teeth are usually decayed beyond repair, because many of our patients don’t seek preventive care,” she said.
Robert Renger, of Joplin Dental Arts, said he volunteers at the clinic and sees its importance to the community.
“As a volunteer (dentist) at the clinic, I see firsthand the need in our community for the services we offer,” he said.
The Missouri Dental Association is a nonprofit organization that boasts more than 2,000 members statewide, according to its website.