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Patient #906

My most recent experience volunteering for Mission of Mercy, an organization that provides medical and dental care to those in need.

Where y'all from? Pennsylvania.

Rosen... is that Jewish? Yup, but non-practicing.

Well I gotta get all my teeth out while I can... ya know, fer free. 

I heard this same sentiment over and over again. I was in hell. I was in Wise, Virginia. Where is Wise, Virginia? In the middle of nowhere. You don't want to be there even for a day. I was stuck there for three days. I flew in to what I thought was the nearest airport. After I landed and went to the only car rental counter, I discovered I was over 100 miles away from my destination. I was in another state all together and I wasn't getting a good feeling about all this. How did I get here?

It all started with a great new report by 60 Minutes. Remote Area Medical is a volunteer-operated organization started to provide treatment to those without access to medical and dental care. Initially, it was intended only to provide for remote areas of the world without any direct access to care. After it was discovered that there is a tremendous domestic need for this service, Mission of Mercy was formed to provide medical and dental care to those without adequate access to care in America. Doctors and dentists volunteer to provide care at no cost. I decided that this was exactly the cause that I wished to support. 

I arranged for a Virginia dental license, airfare, hotel and rental car. The dental care that I could provide far outweighed my out-of-pocket expense. I was excited to begin volunteering, that is until I got a stern warning not to go outside of the fairgrounds where the event was taking place. Some of the locals had devised a new way to make methamphetamine, called a "slow cook". They put all the chemicals in a soda bottle and leave it out to form methamphetamine over several days. Unfortunately, the soda bottles are unstable and tend to explode. This gave a whole new meaning to "minefield."

Wise, Virginia was central to the methamphetamine belt. We saw it when the patients opened their mouths: melted teeth. Every patient was the same story – we were in town pulling teeth for free and they wanted in. The first patient of the day was the eye-opener, followed by hundreds of identical cases. We stood extracting teeth for 12 hours at a time and for three days straight. At the end of the three days I returned home exhausted. I did this for four years and I extracted over 1500 teeth. This was not the way to be a dentist, or to treat a patient. They were all just numbers. 

This year I traveled to a new site that was closer to home. Cumberland, Maryland started a Mission of Mercy last year, just as I completed my last Virginia clinic. I could drive there instead of flying and the clinic only lasted two days. I signed up. 

I drove in to Cumberland, Maryland after a full eight-hour day of work. After three and a half hours more in the car, I was already tired for the next morning's work, which started at 5am. The day began much the same as Virginia – a blur of tooth extractions. At the bottom of every patient's sheet was a number marking their arrival: 75, 126, 229, 378, finally we hit the 500s! We had seen over 500 patients in the first day. I couldn't remember any of their names and their faces were a blur. I was dreading day two, which started with a rare October snowstorm. 

Day two began as I arrived at my chair and started the whirlwind of extractions. We were shorthanded because of the impending snow, so I took over two chairs. I would numb up one patient and then go extract the other patient's teeth, back and forth all day. At noon, more doctors left to get ahead of the snowstorm, leaving me with triple duty. Numb, extract, interview, clean up... the numbers started to blur: 705, 812, 900!

I decided to take a break and walked outside to check out the snow. As I passed the line of patients waiting for their turn one of them quipped, "Where are all these dentists going?! I've been waiting here all day!" A small woman behind him slapped the back of his head. He smiled. I smiled. He apologized. I sat down next to him and we talked for a bit about the town and where he was from. I explained that I had been working for two entire days without a break and that if I didn't get one I would probably be on the floor, which wouldn't do anyone any good. He apologized again.

I walked back in to the battle before me. The day continued where it left off, except that I recognized a patient! #906 and I even knew her name – Corrine! She had been at the clinic the day before to have a tooth removed. She had another broken tooth that needed to be extracted but decided to come back to have it removed because so many other people were waiting. She was the woman who slapped the man from behind and she understood what this was all about. Now I did too.

I extracted her tooth. She thanked me a hundred times and gave me a hug. She was no longer #906, she was Corrine. Corrine works in a hotel up the street cleaning rooms. She has two daughters, one of which just had her first grandbaby, Lillianna, and they were coming for dinner tomorrow. 

That was all I needed to know. I will be back next year. 

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Jean Saladino November 02, 2011 at 01:31 AM
What a great story Dr. Rosen. You're the best!

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