Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

1,300 Wait For Free Dental Care In Pittsburgh


In the city of Pittsburgh, over a thousand people waited in line - some overnight - for the opportunity to see a dentist at a free dental clinic. Millions of Americans lack access to dental care. Katie Blackley with member station WESA reports.

KATIE BLACKLEY, BYLINE: Gregory Pflumm closes his eyes as the dental chair he sits in reclines. He's been waiting outside Pittsburgh's downtown hockey arena since 4:00 a.m. for this chance and says he's going to take advantage of all the dental care he can today.

GREGORY PFLUMM: Surprisingly, I'm a - pretty much a medical experiment. Anything that they can help me out with helps me maybe later on being able to actually afford the rest of whatever I need.

BLACKLEY: Pflumm's an Army veteran who receives his medical care at the VA hospital. But dental coverage is limited at the VA, and he says he's been putting off a lot of this work for decades.

Beside him, oral surgery resident Valentina Zahran lowers a tool into Pflumm's mouth and explains that it might go numb soon.

VALENTINA ZAHRAN: Open real big, and say ah. Perfect.

BLACKLEY: Pflumm and more than 1,300 others attended the weekend clinic. He got here early but says others were camped out overnight.

PFLUMM: There's so many people out there that either don't have insurance, don't have a job, can't afford insurance. Once a year, you can get at least something done.

BLACKLEY: The floor of the clinic is dotted with volunteers and dentists in pastel blue, yellow, pink and green scrubs. Once they're inside the arena, patients are triaged and sent to these color-coded sections, which indicate departments like oral surgery, pediatric care and fillings.

Dentist Dave Sullivan says the clinic isn't able to treat every oral issue but tries to give patients the best care possible. And if they can't do it here, they'll find somewhere else that does.

DAVE SULLIVAN: Patients can get their teeth cleaned in the hygiene department. They can get a root canal or endodontic therapy done. They can have fillings done. They can get teeth extracted. We even make removable partial dentures for them if they're missing teeth.

BLACKLEY: This is the clinic's third year, and it's become one of the largest of its kind in the U.S. The dentists and volunteers try to put the patients at ease as best they can. They crack jokes and ask goofy questions and try to maintain a casual vibe. After all, many patients have never been to the dentist before.

UNIDENTIFIED DENTIST: I only want to hurt people on Wednesdays. What's today?


UNIDENTIFIED DENTIST: Today's Friday. No hurting today.

BLACKLEY: Dentist Keith Young has been with the clinic since the beginning. He says everyone who talks with the patients is trained to make the experience comfortable. It's a long day. But for many patients, this will probably be their only visit this year.

KEITH YOUNG: They're coming in. They're waiting in line four or five hours. They're in this big arena. And they're going to have teeth pulled. That's scary. I mean, that really is. And that's - so we try to make it as comforting as we possibly can when they come through.

BLACKLEY: Young says each year, organizers ask participants how long they've had dental pain. Last year, 45% of patients said they'd had a toothache or a problem with their dentures for more than a year. About a quarter of those surveyed said they visited the emergency room for temporary tooth relief.

YOUNG: They have nowhere else to go, so they go to the emergency room. And they don't get treated. All they get is pain meds or some antibiotics, and they leave. So the problem still exists.

BLACKLEY: After the clinic, Young says patients meet with people in the health care industry who can connect them to a regular dentist and follow-up care. Providers offer preventative services and talk with patients about how to manage their oral health going forward. Patient Darlene Allen says after her visit today, she plans to schedule more.

DARLENE ALLEN: Well, I learned that a lot of other stuff can happen to you if you don't keep your teeth in good condition. And I don't want that.

BLACKLEY: Clinic organizers say it's unfortunate that so many people can't afford to go to the dentist, but they'll continue to provide what they can until that changes. For NPR News, I'm Katie Blackley in Pittsburgh.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Katie Blackley