Free dental care day gives many a reason to smile

Free Dental Day attracts crowd in South Hill

Dentists and staff from Light Dental Studios provide services for over 250 people in need.
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Dentists and staff from Light Dental Studios provide services for over 250 people in need.

Gordon McCoy came to a free dental care event Saturday expecting to get at least one of his painful decaying teeth treated.

Instead, he got a new set of pearly whites at the South Sound Free Dental Day.

McCoy was one of more than 100 people treated free of charge by a team of 14 dentists and 75 staff members at Light Dental Studios in South Hill.

Dentist Angie Dunn said she sees people like McCoy daily.

“Patients come in who simply can’t afford dental treatment and they live toothache to toothache. They scrounge up the money to get a tooth extracted,” she said.

McCoy needed more than one tooth extracted.

The retired Puyallup railroad worker’s teeth had been steadily getting more painful over the past five years as they decayed.

“I had some insurance when I worked for the railroad, but it was minimal. I let the kids get the dental work and I neglected it,” he said.

On Saturday, McCoy and wife Linda arrived at 5:30 a.m. to ensure they would get a spot in line. The event started at 7:30 a.m.

Linda told the dental staff — all of whom were volunteering their time — that she wanted to give up her spot in line so her husband could get more work done.

The staff decided Gordon McCoy was a candidate for a full upper denture — one of just a handful they were doing.

“We love doing dentures here,” said Dr. Steve Broughton. “It’s a common experience in our office for our patients to cry when we deliver (the dentures).”

McCoy has dental insurance, but has to pay a year’s worth of premiums before any work is allowed.

“We prayed about it and he’s getting new teeth,” Linda McCoy said. “This is huge. This takes care of a need. His dentist wanted to charge $20,000 for all the work in his mouth.”

Linda got her cavity filled as well.

Broughton spearheaded the free dental day, which drew dentists and staff from six Puget Sound dental offices.

In years past, the company has cleaned up and improved parks and beaches on its community service day. A year ago, Broughton had an idea.

“Why don’t we use our own infrastructure and do what we do best, which is dentistry?” Broughton said. “Let’s just give away a free day of dentistry.”

No income requirement was required for the people who stood in line — some as early as 4 a.m. Saturday. Each patient got to choose one tooth for treatment, which commonly included fillings and extractions.

Broughton said the cases he was seeing were fairly typical of people who had let their dental care lapse a bit.

“People came from all over and that tells us that there is big need,” he said. “We’re filling a gap.”

Some people left the dental offices Saturday crying in gratitude.

“It’s pretty moving,” Dunn said. “The outpouring of love and gratitude from the community is pretty cool.”

Still, many of the patients needed much more work. They were given coupons for discounted procedures.

“A lot of people don’t realize that dental issues, whether it’s gum disease or cavities, is infectious,” Dunn said while looking over an X-ray just handed to her.

An infection can spread from tooth to tooth or from family member to family member, Dunn said.

By the end of the day, the dentists expected to see 225 patients and give away $80,000 to $100,000 of free dentistry, Broughton said.

Friends Christal Bailey of Tacoma and Kacie Bingham of Bonney Lake were seated on the floor, waiting for an exam. They were passing the time by crocheting.

Bailey is a stay-at-home mom. Her husband doesn’t make enough money to afford dental care, she said.

“Even with Obamacare,” Bailey said.

One of Bailey’s wisdom teeth is broken.

“It’s decayed and it hurts. Lots of pain,” she said. “I pack it with clove to get through the pain. Anbesol doesn’t work,” Bailey said.

Bingham is between jobs and without insurance.

“I have a heredity thing where all of my teeth are rotting out. Every single one of them,” Bingham said.

One side of her mouth is off-limits.

“I can’t chew. Anything hot or cold that touches these teeth is excruciating,” Bingham said.

Getting all of Bingham’s dental needs met would cost $58,000, she was told by previous dentists.

Eventually, Bingham said she will travel to Mexico, where the cost of dental care is a fraction of what it costs in the U.S.

In a nearby building, it was baby’s first dental visit for 20-month-old Sophia Paul of Puyallup. She came with dad Jacob Paul and grandmother Carol Paul.

“It was an opportunity to get her teeth looked at,” Jacob said of the free dental day.

Hygienist Candice Kaufman, obviously a practiced hand with children, cajoled Sophia into opening her mouth for a quick exam.

Sophia’s baby teeth had yet to fully arrive but Kaufman used a swab to apply a fluoride varnish to the toddler’s present teeth.

Sophia agreed to the procedure only after deciding that the varnish was an acceptable flavor: bubble gum.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, @crsailor