CARTHAGE, Mo. —
The tooth had given her so much pain, Erin Obie had tried to pull it herself.
“I sterilized the pliers and everything,” the Carthage woman said as she waited on Friday for the troublesome tooth to be extracted at a free dental clinic being offered at the office of Dr. William Herrington, of Joplin.
Obie said she had just qualified for Medicaid and hoped that coverage would pay to pull several other teeth. She was dismayed to learn the government program probably would not cover dental services for her.
“I knew it wouldn’t pay for anything cosmetic, but I thought surely it would help me get those other teeth pulled,” she said.
The dilemma faced by Obie is one of the reasons that well over 100 patients were expected to show up at the free clinic that Herrington’s practice has offered each Good Friday for the past three years. The free clinic was staffed by Herrington, Dr. Patricia Morales, of Rogers, Ark., and Herrington’s dental staff, all giving their time to the effort. Also on hand were about 40 other volunteers including students from dental hygiene programs at Missouri Southern State University and Franklin Technology Center in Joplin, and other workers signing up patients and helping in other ways, including feeding volunteers a noon lunch and providing sack lunches for patients waiting to be seen.
Herrington described the clinic as “mission work I can do here at home” to help Carthage area residents who cannot afford dental care. At the clinic patients could get one tooth extracted or filled, or a basic cleaning.
“There’s a lot people out there who just don’t have that extra money after they pay the rent and buy the groceries,” he said.
That’s the case with Obie, who was there with her husband, Michael Obie, both to get a tooth extracted. Michael Obie is on disability and Erin cares for her parents, who are both ill. She said the tooth had been bothering her for over a year, and she had been able to see a doctor, who had prescribed antibiotics and pain medicine.
“We get $710 a month. After we pay rent and buy groceries, we’re broke,” she said. “It was getting so it hurt for me to eat anything — even cereal.”
Michael Obie said they had seen information on the free clinic at Crosslines of Carthage. He said he had been having pain from a tooth for more than a month and was happy when he learned he might be able to get it pulled.
“I thank God for this; we couldn’t have afforded to pay for it,” he said.
Vic Pugh, also of Carthage, said he broke a tooth two months ago and had been in pain ever since. He said he has no medical or dental insurance, and had been unemployed since the plant where he worked for 27 years had closed.
“There’s no way I could afford this,” he said.
Pugh after the procedure said the remaining tooth had to be extracted in three pieces, adding, “I didn’t feel a thing.”
About 30 people were waiting in line when staff arrived at 6:30 a.m., said Pam Herrington, Dr. Herrington’s wife, who was helping with the clinic. Patients were signed up and seated in a tent set up outside the office, then called in at the time of their procedure. As they left, patients were given bags with toothbrushes, toothpaste and floss, along with instructions on post-procedure care.
Some supplies and materials used in the clinic were donated by vendors, Herrington said, with some churches and individuals giving money or food, including the main course for volunteers, which was donated by Sirloin Stockade.
Other costs are borne by Herrington, including renting a tent that serves as a waiting room and portable restrooms, and buying T-shirts for volunteers that read, “Make Good Friday a Great Friday.”
Herrington said his Christian faith inspired him to start the clinic, noting he followed the example of dentists in Florida and Oklahoma who were setting aside days to provide free care.
“When we heard what they were doing, it touched our hearts and we wanted to do it here,” he said. “It’s a good feeling to know you’ve helped so many people.”
Herrington said he plans to offer the clinics for as long as he’s in practice. He said 99 patients got services a year ago and, so far, they’ve been able to see all the patients who have come.
“We’ve worked until after 7:30 p.m., and we’ve been able to wrap up earlier,” he said.
Getting dental care is a real challenge for low-income adults, said Ann Carlos, executive director of Area Community Health Emissaries Inc. The not-for-profit group started offering dental clinics in 2002 and now has locations in Anderson, Neosho, Carthage and Nevada.
Services are provided on a sliding scale for low income families, and she said the group also has a family assistance program to offer care at a reduced price for those who lack dental insurance.
“It’s hard to give away services, because we have to pay our dentists, but we do offer reduced rates,” she said.
While dental care is more available for children on Medicaid, Carlos said the rules are very restrictive when it comes to adults.
She said many low income people put off dental care, which can lead to serious health complications. She said organizations such as the Missouri Foundation for Health have recognized the problem and are trying to put together more programs that will help adults.
Access Family Care also offers dental services on a sliding scale, based on income, at locations in Joplin, Neosho and Cassville.
Dental care also is provided by dentists and hygienists who volunteer at the Community Clinic of Joplin, which provides medical services for people without insurance. Some of the equipment used at the Joplin clinic was on loan to Dr. William Herrington’s office for his clinic on Friday.