Volunteer dentists fill a need Health: Mission of Mercy's dental clinic travels to area churches, sets up shop and offers the poor and uninsured care they might otherwise have to forgo.

November 24, 1996|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

A mobile dental clinic is giving patients their smiles back, eliminating toothaches and preaching preventive medicine.

Mission of Mercy, a nonprofit traveling clinic that provides free medical care to the poor and uninsured, is offering dental care at three of its six sites. Twice a month at Reisterstown United Methodist Church, a portable dental clinic arrives unassembled aboard the mission's 32-foot van.

Every other Tuesday, volunteers quickly turn space at the church on Main Street into a dental examining room, complete with a sterilizer, X-ray machine, adjustable chair, lighting and a compressor to power all those noisy gadgets that can create jitters in a dental patient.

"That is the time-consuming part, putting it together in the morning and packing it away when we leave," said Dr. Gianna Talone-Sullivan, founder of the mission and a pharmacologist.

Kira Dorsey would say the effort is worthwhile. After an hour in the dentist's chair, she had her smile back.

"People always told me I have a beautiful smile," said Dorsey, an unemployed Randallstown resident. "I wish I had beautiful teeth."

Her new dentist passed Dorsey's no-pain test: She did not flinch when he administered anesthetic by injection.

"Nobody from Social Services would help me," Dorsey said. "It is only God and people like these who are keeping me and my daughters going."

Dr. Vu Tran replaced a filling for Dorsey, the most urgent of several problems, and cleaned her teeth. She made another appointment and received a number to call in case of emergency.

Tran, a Silver Springs dentist and monthly volunteer, said most of his work at the mission is pain control. He must often refer patients to oral surgeons, who have agreed to provide more complex care, such as root canals.

"Everyone is complicated, most from lack of care," he said. "I usually ask what is bothering them the most, and I don't want them leaving here with any extra pain."

Talone-Sullivan oversees the operation of the clinic. She may see as many as 100 patients a day, but she has time for a gentle hug or a kind reassurance.

"The poor deserve all the resources we have, including respect and dignity," she said.

The equipment might be portable, but it is all top quality, Tran said. The few flaws he has encountered were caused by electrical connections.

Resourcefulness compensates for any item the clinic lacks. To dry an X-ray quickly, Tran waved it in front of a small desk fan.

"It's frustrating getting the portables set up and working," said Rosalie Schneider, a registered nurse and dental assistant. "We could help so many more people with permanent equipment. Still, nobody gets upset about waiting. The patients are so kind."

In a room full of patients waiting to see Tran or Dr. Michael Sullivan, the mission medical director and husband of its founder, no one complained of delays.

Allan J. Glass, the second dental patient of the day, waited for more than an hour. Glass, a Reisterstown construction worker who has visited the mission's medical clinic, called the dental clinic "better than places where you pay.

"Without this place, I would have to let my teeth go," said Glass. "These people are giving their time for free, and I know I will get the best care here. They are a godsend."

Talone-Sullivan, a Catholic, agreed that the concept for the mission comes from God. She says she has visions and messages from Mary, revered by Catholics as the mother of God.

"I don't make this happen; it all belongs to God," she said. "As long as we are open vessels, God's love will shine through us."

Since it began treating the uninsured poor two years ago in Westminster, the mission has expanded its medical service to four other sites in Maryland and one in Gettysburg, Pa. "CBS Evening News" anchor Dan Rather recently featured Mission of Mercy in an "Eye on America" segment, calling its volunteers people who make a difference.

Not long after the mission began treating patients, who now number more than 3,000, the volunteers found most needed dental care. Although many working poor have health insurance, few have dental coverage.

The mission opened its first dental clinic in July at its Westminster site, where volunteer dentists have treated nearly 500 patients. A second clinic opened in Gettysburg in July, and Reisterstown followed this month. The staff is readying the portable units for Brunswick, the next site to provide dental care.

Nineteen volunteer dentists rotate among the sites to do fillings, extractions, scaling and cleaning.

Penni DeVinney, unemployed and on medical assistance, made an appointment for "big time" dental work. She munched on multigrain crackers as she waited for her appointment.

"They give you help, snacks, smiles and a prayer, if you need it," DeVinney said. "You can tell these people care about us. They all have the Lord in their hearts, and we can feel it."

Pub Date: 11/24/96

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