By Robb Murray
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — As Elaine Pierce sat in a dental chair in the middle of the Verizon Wireless Center floor, where a thousand people had come for free dental care and a thousand more had come to help, her mind drifted back 20 years to the kick in the face that changed her smile forever.
And then tears filled her eyes.
Pierce’s smile is a memorable one. But not for the right reasons. One of her front teeth is missing, a fact she says has kept her from pursuing a better job and contributed to her depression.
Sitting in a dental chair, she waited and fidgeted. She’s eager to try on the new dentures she hopes will give her back the smile she had before it happened.
The Bloomington woman is a victim of domestic abuse. Twenty years ago, her former husband threw her to the ground and kicked her in the face. Pierce, who was four months pregnant at the time, was rushed to the emergency room where she underwent surgery on her face and extreme measures to stop her premature labor. Surgery went well. Her baby was fine. But her smile ...
“It’s going to mean a lot. My self-esteem is like this,” she says, using her hands to gesture low. “But I’m a survivor. I’m in that survivor mode right now.”
Mission of Mercy is helping her do that.
The inaugural event in Minnesota — sponsored by the Minnesota Dental Association and the Minnesota Dental Foundation — plans to serve as many as 2,000 people by the time it ends Saturday afternoon. If it does, it will provide an estimated $1 million in free dental care to people who need it.
And there are definitely people here who need it.
Tooth extractions, cleanings, X-rays — if dentists do it, people here need it.
The Mission of Mercy machine is an impressive one. People lined up outside the Verizon Wireless Center by Wednesday night. When the doors opened at 5:30 a.m. Friday, patients were treated to a sea of volunteers (roughly 1,200 in all) who guided them through registration and on to the areas of care they needed.
By the end of the day, they’d hit 1,000 patients.
For kids, a special curtained area greeted them with Hello Kitty, iCarly and Sesame Street posters, and they were given stuffed animals to make their visits a little cuddlier.
A row of cubicles lined one side of the arena, X-ray machines tucked inside each one. In another area, doctors pulled painful teeth from the mouths of patients under local anesthesia. In another area, people such as Pierce were getting dentures made.
Many of them don’t have insurance. Or, like Pierce, the insurance they do have would never cover something such as partial dentures.
Ann Tabor’s dental problems go back decades, as well. She hasn’t had dental insurance for eight years, and during that time her teeth have shifted and deteriorated to the point where her dentures no longer fit properly. It’s simply easier, and more comfortable, to not wear them.
“I only have two teeth, one upper and one lower, that I can chew with,” she said. “After that long, you learn to chew with what you have.”
She’s here to get new partials. She’s also hoping to get something done about the pain that’s gotten increasingly worse in the last two weeks.
“These people are angels of mercy,” she said. “I feel so lucky that they came here.”
The Mission of Mercy program came to Mankato, Minnesota Dental Association officials said, because the Mankato-area dental community expressed great interest in bringing it here.
Two years ago, the MDA decided to hold a Mission of Mercy event. Similar events had been held in 17 other states. To prepare, they attended events in other states and tried to collect all of the best practices for the Minnesota event.
“I’ve talked to people from other states,” said MDA President Michael Zakula, “and they said this is by the best first-run Mission of Mercy they’ve ever seen.”
Zakula said events such as Mission of Mercy shine a light on the fact that there are so many Minnesotans, so many Americans, who can’t afford health or dental care.
“The state of Minnesota does not have a way to take care of our vulnerable adults and children,” Zakula said.
Laura Kramer, who handles legislative initiatives for the MDA, said the group was able to raise $350,000 to hold the event. They also received a $150,000 donation form Delta Dental and other corporate gifts.
“We were really overwhelmed by the support,” Kramer said.
Running through the crowd were people with bright yellow neon shirts escorting patients through the process. Others had darker shirts. Those were translators, ready to help those who spoke Nepalese, Spanish, Somali, Hmong, French, Russian or American sign language to get their dental needs filled.
Some volunteers offered to help simply because they believe in the value of maintaining good oral hygiene.
Carol Budde said she heard about the program from Mankato dentist Doug Otopalik, who put a notice in his church newsletter.
“I was born with a cleft palate, so I’ve had a lot of work done,” she said. “It’s wonderful that they came to Mankato.”
Jeff Taylor, a dentist who practices in Mapleton, said it’s impossible for a one-time event to really solve the dental problems of people who can’t afford it. It’s a great start, he said, but there needs to be a way to remove barriers to getting dental care, not to mention follow-up care.
Getting help, though, for people such as Pierce is the kind of thing that makes the Mission of Mercy program so valuable.
“I guess I get a charge out it,” he said.
After getting her dental work done, Trina Bruckoff of Minnesota Lake stood in the women’s bathroom staring into the mirror, smiling. Just smiling.
For several years she’d dealt with the shame of hiding her smile.
“I had really bad teeth. All these were black,” she said, pointing to her front teeth.
“I can’t even describe it,” she said. “It means a lot.”
And as she wept, the grin on her face grew even wider.
The dental clinic is open from 5:30 a.m. until about 5 p.m. Saturday.