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Remote Area Medical volunteers treat 297 dental patients on Saturday

Hannah Swayze • Nov 4, 2017 at 11:55 PM

Shawna Rogers arrived at the Appalachian Fairgrounds at 11:30 Friday night; she had driven an hour-and-a-half from Mountain City for a place at the Remote Area Medical clinic.

That night she was bracing for the pain that was to come: she knew she'd probably be losing some teeth. She hadn't been able to afford to see a dentist in a long time.

About 15 hours later — after sleeping in her car and waiting for hours Saturday morning — Shawna walked out of the clinic. To her surprise, not only did she keep all her teeth, a chipped front tooth was fixed, a feature Shawna had been self-conscious about for years. She avoided pictures and didn't like to smile much.

But by the time she left Saturday, she allowed her picture to be taken with a smile, something she'd never been comfortable doing at all — much less for a newspaper.

Saturday was a big day, not only for Shawna, but also for dental work on the second day of the RAM clinic.

Shawna's story is one of many from patients who turned out, camped overnight and waited for hours for free dental services provided by RAM, which provides care for those who cannot afford it. The three-day clinic started Friday and runs through Sunday.

By 12:30 p.m., the clinic had already registered 297 patients specifically for dental services, some of whom had not had dental work in years. Many were in pain.

Their stories are not uncommon, either inside or outside of the RAM clinic.

For Dr. Rachel Hymes, who practices dentistry at the Johnson City Community Health Center, this weekend’s work is not much different than what she does five days a week. Though she doesn’t see patients for free on a regular basis, her patents pay on a sliding scale according to income.

She said this basic dental care is very important. It gets the patients out of pain, the bacteria out of their body and keeps them healthier. In addition, mouth pain sometimes makes it difficult to speak or eat.

"People say it's the worst pain that they feel. They can handle pain anywhere else but in their mouth. I've had people say to me, 'I'd rather have three babies than feel this pain,’" Hymes said. "The pain that these people feel I hope to never experience myself."

In fact, several volunteers spoke of stories they've heard from patients who had pulled their own teeth — or the teeth of a family member — because the pain was so great, but they could not afford the care.

Inside the main building at the Appalachian Fairgrounds, 40 dental chairs were set up with four rows of dental hygienists, practicing dentists and students. Sixty-nine volunteers were present to perform the medical work, all for free through Remote Area Medical.

The volunteers included 10 dentists not from a dental school. Six were from the Tri-Cities, three from New York and one from North Carolina.

The rest of the volunteers were faculty supervisors and students from dental schools. Primarily they were from the University at Buffalo School of Dental Medicine in Buffalo, New York, and the University of Tennessee College of Dentistry in Memphis.

One oral surgeon was at the clinic Saturday: Dr. Eugene Hermon. He has been volunteering three or four times a year for RAM clinics for the past 11 years. He flies in from Long Island, New York, where he lives and practices.

Hermon says he wished more people, particularly specialists like him, would come out and volunteer.

"The message is ... You make a wonderful living. You've got special skills and special gifts, get off your butt and get out here. You know, volunteer. Do something," Herman said.

"Put in the time and help people. It's good for the soul."

A text message sent out to volunteers at the end of the day reported the registration of 685 patients and $388,658 in services so far at the RAM clinic. Sunday is the last day of the clinic before Remote Area Medical packs up and moves on to the next location in need.

For more information about RAM’s mobile medical clinics or to volunteer, visit ramusa.org.

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