When he could no longer chew — four upper teeth were all he had left — 91-year-old Edward Wadley went to the Veterans Administration for help.
They couldn’t give him any.
“Said I wasn’t disabled enough, and I’m not,” Wadley said. “I still drive. And I was working ’til last October.”
A VA caseworker sent Wadley to an Issaquah dentist, who referred Wadley to Tacoma dentist Dr. Theodore Baer. Baer and his partner, Dr. Karl Smith, often find ways to discount fees for patients.
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And their practice is near Wadley’s Tacoma apartment. He showed up for his appointment last month nicely dressed.
On his head was a cap worn by the Tuskegee Airmen, the celebrated group of black pilots and support personnel who broke the color barrier and served during World War II.
“I talked to him and found out he’d been a clerk with them in World War II, and I started getting mad,” office manager Donna Smith said. “This man went to war for us, and now the VA won’t do his dental work?“
Baer took a good look at Wadley’s mouth.
“It was clear he needed a fair amount of work,” Baer said. “Donna came in to work out some kind of payment schedule, and he said, ‘I can’t do it.’”
Donna Smith talked about options. In the end, the bill was going to be more than $10,500 for upper and lower dentures, posts and a few extractions.
“I live on Social Security,” Wadley said. “Between my low-income housing rent and my medications, I don’t have much left. One of my daughters in California pays my telephone bill.”
In the middle of her conversation with Wadley, Smith was interrupted by a dental assistant who said a patient in the next cubicle wished to talk to her.
“I went next door and one of our patients, a physician, had overheard. She said, ‘I’ll take care of his bill,’ ” Donna Smith said. “I’d just gotten my income tax refund, so I said, ‘How about if we split it?’ ”
What followed was an explosion of generosity.
Baer volunteered his labor. By chance, denturist Alan Anderson was sitting in the lobby and heard the excitement.
“I was waiting to see another patient, but I’d met Mr. Wadley in the lobby and talked to him,” Anderson said. “I told Donna I’d volunteer my labor, too.”
Around the office, the staff of 12 started chipping in. Baer went to his partner to tell him what was going on.
“We believe in helping where we can. In today’s world, there are people who get left behind,” Karl Smith said. “We are in the business of patient care.”
When Donna Smith went back to give Wadley the news, he was stunned.
“They really helped me, they went to work and they treated me well,” Wadley said. “I wouldn’t have asked for help. If you can pay, you should pay. I can’t. That’s just the way it was.”
Drafted at age 20, Wadley served with the Tuskegee Airmen, tracking hours in the air for pilots and planes. He made sure the men got rest and the planes were inspected on time.
After the war, he moved from his native Oklahoma to California, working as an electrician in the shipyards. Then he started selling cars.
“My family and I started working our way north with the economy,” Wadley said. “When it was tough in California, it was better in Oregon. When it got tough in Portland, it was better in Tacoma.”
Wadley lost his wife in 2004. Their four children live in California.
He took part-time security work — behind a desk — until last fall.
“They told me the money I was making would make me ineligible for subsidized housing,” he said. “I wasn’t making enough to pay full rent, so I had to quit.”
He received his new dentures Wednesday. If they don’t fit snugly, posts will be implanted at a later date.
“They’ll change my life,” Wadley said. “I’ll participate in my church again, the Tacoma Christian Center. I know it wouldn’t have mattered to them, but it’s hard going to church when you have no teeth.”
Baer said the fact that another of his patients volunteered to pay Wadley’s bill “was overwhelming.”
“I thought, from the beginning, ‘We’ve got to get this done,’ ” Baer said.
Now, it’s being done.
“I think every dentist office in Tacoma would have done the same thing,” Donna Smith said.
Probably not. But wouldn’t it be lovely to think so?