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Virginia MOM brings hope, smiles

Wise, Va.—Deep in Virginia's Appalachian Mountains and in between the Daniel Boone and Jefferson national forests sits a county called Wise.

With a population of about 42,000 people, Wise bills itself as "The Safest Place on Earth," and the "Festival Capital of Southwest Virginia." For 11 years, the county and the town by the same name have been home to something grander.

Since that time, Wise has served as a Remote Area Medical clinic/Missions of Mercy site for the Virginia Dental Association Foundation. This year, about 1,200 patients were seen and $1.4 million in free dentistry was provided.

It's where Teresa Casey got her teeth.

It was actually a fluke that Ms. Casey, 48, received dentures at the end of July event. Patients looking to receive free dental services have to sign up for a lottery, one that's doubled in enrollment over the last five years, said Dr. Scott Miller, a prosthodontist who provided treatment at the MOM event.

"These patients in the area that need dentures, they're placed on a waiting list, and sometimes it's five years or longer before they can be selected," Dr. Miller said.

The mission of the MOM staff is to provide care for people who either can't afford it or live too far to easily travel to a dentist. For some, the event is their only trip to the dentist all year. There are state dental societies nationwide that sponsor the events, and the one in Wise drew patients from 15 states, said Dr. Terry Dickinson, executive director of the Virginia Dental Association.

Teresa Casey checks out her new smile in the mirror after receiving free dentures at the Virginia MOM clinic in June.
Teresa Casey checks out her new smile in the mirror after receiving free dentures at the Virginia MOM clinic in June.
Life-changing smile: Teresa Casey checks out her new smile in the mirror after receiving free dentures at the Virginia MOM clinic in June. Serious medical issues had left her edentulous.

On that late July day, Dr. Miller had a couple of no-shows. It was then he met Ms. Casey, who was number 545 in line.

"I saw another dentist come over with this little lady just locked on his arm. She just had to have her dentures because Tuesday was going to be her birthday," Dr. Miller said. "I just looked at her and she was just all in tears and I said, 'God's looking out for you because two people didn't show up.' I told her we could at least get the process started."

Ms. Casey drove to Wise from her home in Big Rock, Va., about 60 miles away. She had no teeth—losing all of them as a result of a bone deterioration disease and other medical problems—and has had 20 surgeries for cancer-related problems.

"She's just been through so much," Dr. Miller said.

So he and some other dentists collaborated in making Ms. Casey's dentures, and by Monday, she had a full new set of teeth. She said her teeth have been bad since she was a little girl, and her medical problems complicated matters. But Ms. Casey couldn't afford dentures; her insurance only covers a checkup.

"I cried. I just can’t believe it's me. It's just changed my life so much. I feel so much better about myself. I can deal with my health better because I look better," Ms. Casey said upon seeing her new teeth.

The VDAF MOM team not only fit 40 patients with dentures this year, they also performed relines for people whose dentures were loose and repaired broken denture teeth, Dr. Miller said.

Dr. Miller has been participating in the Wise MOM event for four years and said it's daunting to see so many people from the area where he grew up not have access to dental care.

"Seeing that many people gathered together in one place from the area that I'm from, it's concerning. It concerns me a lot that there's that much poverty here and people in need," Dr. Miller said. "The core of the problem is more than access to care. The access to care is because people don't have the jobs. It's not that we don’t have enough practitioners here to fulfill the need. It's because people aren't seeking us out because they can't afford it."

Dr. Dickinson said the VDA is working with the public health departments surrounding Wise to develop some programs that would provide more dental care to low-income people.

"We've known it since we did the first project. It was pretty clear that there was a problem, particularly in these rural areas," Dr. Dickinson said. "One, there's not that many dentists there. A lot of people lost their insurance benefits. They simply don't have extra money to spend on getting a tooth. We've become kind of the safety net for those folks, and they wait all year for us to come back."

Dr. Miller brought his 18-year-old son to the event, and he had the opportunity to meet Ms. Casey and watch her be fitted for dentures. Ms. Casey's case was life-changing for all who were involved, Dr. Miller said.

"I think they realized they were doing something good for somebody who couldn't receive it any other way," Dr. Miller said.

The appreciation came from both sides. Ms. Casey realized the late nights and long hours spent to create her dentures. The lab staff was working in 100-degree temperatures, having to put the dentures in bowls of ice water to keep the wax from melting, Dr. Miller said.

"It's just so wonderful of them to take their time out. They don't get paid anything. It's all on them," Ms. Casey said. "They're just miracle people to me."