As the sun rose on Sept. 13, a line of people continued down the sidewalk and wrapped around the Xfinity Center at the University of Maryland in College Park. And the line only kept growing.

Standing at the very front was Linda Frazier, who had been standing outside the Xfinity Center since 6:40 p.m. the night before. She said she didn’t sleep. In fact, she stood through the sprinkler system being set off during the night and a bit of rain as well. But she made new friends and said that the night was fun. 

Frazier kept vigil because she needed a painful tooth extracted, and she couldn’t afford to visit a dentist to get it removed.

Hundreds claimed a spot in line for free dental care offered through the Mid-Maryland Mission of Mercy hosted by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, the University of Maryland School of Public Health and the Maryland State Dental Association Foundation on Sept. 13 and 14. 

The last time Frazier said she received any dental care was two years ago, at the last Mission of Mercy in Mid-Maryland in 2017. 

“It’s because of the way the U.S. health care and dental system is,” Frazier said, noting the challenge of affording insurance. “…It’s a money-making thing. Everybody can’t afford it.”

The 69-year-old retired woman said that she was grateful for the opportunity to get some dental care done.

“It’s a wonderful thing Catholic Charities is doing,” Frazier said. “There are so many people in need.” 

Frazier made her way into the arena at 7 a.m. when the doors opened and went through a pre-screening process complete with X-rays, where she was then led to the floor of the arena’s basketball court, which was filled with more than 100 dental chairs, and by 8:40 a.m. her painful tooth was gone and she was ready to head home.

“They did a wonderful job, they were quick; it didn’t hurt,” she said. “I guess I won.” 

The Mid-Maryland Mission of Mercy provided free dental care to about 1,100 patients in a two-day clinic through the generosity of  500 dentists, hygienists, dental assistants and medical professionals who volunteered their services ranging from cleanings to fillings, extractions and root canals for the uninsured and underinsured. In addition to dental care, the Health Equity Festival provided the opportunity for health screenings and other services for overall patient health, including haircuts and eye exams. 

One man, who declined to give his last name, said he had bad teeth and hasn’t been able to see a dentist since he lost his job last year.

“I’m really grateful God gave me this opportunity, and God bless everyone here who is doing work for free,” he said. “I am really excited.”

In addition to the hundreds of patients who received free dental care, volunteers expressed gratitude that they were able to serve the community in this way. 

Teresa Villanueva, a Catholic Charities parish partner coordinator, volunteered for her third Mission of Mercy this year. The opportunity, she said, is a blessing. 

“The needs of the families are very great,” Villanueva said. “These families are suffering from a lack of health insurance.” 

Before the clinic opened, Villanueva arrived at 4 a.m. to greet the patients lined up outside the arena. 

“I want to make sure they can see that there is somebody here for them,” she said. “Every time they do these events, my heart is joyful.” 

At the Mid-Maryland Mission of Mercy, dental professionals provided services to more than 1,000 people, many of whom had lined up for hours before dawn on Sept. 13 outside the University of Maryland's Xfinity Center. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Dr. Jim Garner, a dentist who has volunteered with the past two Mid-Maryland Missions of Mercy, as well as another in Waldorf, Maryland, said he loved having the chance to be a part of the event as an endodontics and root canal lead. Garner started volunteering with Catholic Charities in 1982 when they had their first dental clinic. He said there is one story from the 2017 Mission of Mercy that he will never forget. 

“We had a young 21-year-old girl who said she couldn’t work because she had this tooth broken off...and so I told her I could do the root canal and that she needed a crown,” Garner said. 

After teaming with another doctor, Garner said he was able to give the young woman a root canal and a crown in one day, which usually takes weeks to do in the dental office.

“So at the end when they finished...and he shows her the mirror, this girl starts crying. I still get teared up about this girl. She starts crying and crying, hugging us and says, ‘Today’s my birthday...This is the best birthday present,’” he said. 

For many of the patients on Medicaid, which provides government health insurance for low-income adults, dental care is difficult to get due to the fact that Maryland does not offer full dental coverage with Medicaid. 

A 32-year-old woman who asked to remain anonymous said that while she was grateful for the opportunity to get her teeth looked at, she was saddened that so many were in need. 

“It’s a wonderful service, but it’s extremely sad that this many people have come here for services that have become a luxury,” she said. “It’s ridiculous that it is like this. You can see that poverty is really prevalent.”

She said she hopes that a solution can be found, even for those with dental insurance. 

“I need about $5,000 of dental work done, and basic dental insurance doesn’t cover much,” she said. “It’s very generous of Catholic Charities, but it’s extremely disappointing that there are so many people standing in line.” 

At a Sept. 12 media briefing, Mary Backley, executive director of the Maryland Dental Action Coalition, said she hopes this Mission of Mercy will be the last, if Maryland dental insurance policy can be reformed in the near future.

“We’re hoping, frankly, along with everyone else here, that this will be the last one,” Backley said. “There have been significant strides. There is an adult dental pilot program, I am very happy to report that is providing preventative, restorative and other services to a population of dual-eligible adults with Medicare and Medicaid, and so we look at this as a very important first step.”

More than 100 dental chairs were set up on the floor of the University of Maryland's basketball arena for the Mid-Maryland Mission of Mercy dental clinic on Sept. 13-14. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

College Park Mayor Patrick Wojahn, who was present at the clinic on Sept. 14, said the clinic was an extension of caring for others right in their own community.

“It always just amazes me to hear the stories of the people whose lives are changed and impacted by this event,” he told the people present.  “These are our community members. This is College Park and the surrounding communities that you are helping.”

Providing quality preventative and restorative care was a main focus of Mission of Mercy. Dr. Lucciola Lambruschini, director of dental services at Catholic Charities, said that she has seen first-hand the effects of patients going to clinics that lack proper sanitary procedures. This can lead to patients having to spend money for additional oral health problems.

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington offers two dental clinics in the metropolitan D.C. area that provide care for those without insurance.

“I truly believe that there is a lot of need...and I hope (Mission of Mercy) is just a start,” Lambruschini said. “We work with patients in a dental clinic, I hope we can offer them a dental home to all those who are in need of insurance.” 

Dr. Mel Weissburg, another endodontic and root canal lead, said the Mission of Mercy offers a “life changing” impact by providing dental care to those who might not receive it elsewhere.

“Many of the things we do, it changes their lives,” Weissburg said. “They are embarrassed because they have missing or cavities in their front teeth. They get cleaned up, they get filled, and now they can smile. They can smile when they’re working, they can get a job. The socio-economic impact on that patient and their family, and their children and our society...goes a long way. And it’s something that if we don’t do it, who will?”

During a visit to the clinic, Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory met with patients and dentists, listening to their stories and offering words of encouragement.

“I’d like to thank all those who are here as patients and families,” he said in an address to those in attendance. “You are the source of wonder for us in how privileged we are to serve you and care for you.”

And to Catholic Charities, Archbishop Gregory said, “How proud you make us for allowing us to serve God’s people.”

Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory greets a volunteer at the Mid-Maryland Mission of Mercy at the University of Maryland's Xfinity Center on Sept. 14. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Sister Romana Uzodimma, a member of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus, works with the Catholic Charities Health Care Network. During the Mission of Mercy, she volunteered on the floor, helping lead patients to dental chairs as smoothly as possible.

“This is God’s work, it is very amazing,” she said. “People volunteer and donate their time, and it’s amazing what God can do with people. It gives me joy to see that we have this many people here to serve the vulnerable.”

Oral health is one of the basic needs for people, she said, adding that for the patients to be freed from pain is amazing. 

“I thank God for the doctors,” Sister Uzodimma said. “I really admire their giving spirits. That is what motivates them.”