KHI News Service

Free dental clinic serves thousands

By Sarah Green | February 20, 2009

By Sarah Green
KHI News Service
Feb. 20, 2009

newborn_screening Dutch Finn, 8, right, touches his mother Shelby Longren's face as they wait in line for dental treatment at the Manhattan National Guard Armory. The pair, along with Dutch's two siblings, were among the 1,000 people who received dental care at the Kansas Mission of Mercy clinic on Friday. (Ann Williamson/KHI)

MANHATTAN — Volunteers at the annual Kansas Mission of Mercy occasionally see familiar faces among the crowd of hundreds, sometimes thousands of people who line up for free dental care. They are the faces of people they’ve helped before.

“We know there are a handful of patients who have made this their dental home,” said Greg Hill, executive director of the Kansas Dental Charitable Foundation, which organizes the event. “Is that ideal? No. We’d love for the system to be able to find spaces for every person who is here. But right now, that’s not possible.”

This weekend marks the state’s eighth Mission of Mercy. Organizers said they expect to serve a total of about 2,000 patients on Friday and Saturday.

By 9 a.m. Friday morning, all of the day’s appointments had been scheduled. Many patients had camped out in tents in front of the clinic site at the National Guard Armory, or slept in their cars overnight in the parking lot.

Those left in line were put on the list for Saturday.

Shelby Longren, a certified nursing assistant from Manhattan, and her three children were among those who received care on Friday. Her father brought the children, ages 13, 12 and 8, to get in line before the doors opened at 5 a.m. She joined the group after her overnight shift ended at 6 a.m.

Longren has dental insurance through her employer; two of her children are enrolled in HealthWave, a state-sponsored health insurance program for children from low- and moderate-income households, which includes dental benefits.

But Longren said she has had a hard time finding a “kid-friendly” dentist who will accept HealthWave, so her children hadn’t been for a recent check-up.  And Longren’s dentist told her it would cost $800 to repair one of her teeth.

“I don’t have $800,” she said. “This day has been a little long for me, but as a single mom, it’s a blessing to have my teeth and my kids’ teeth fixed for free.”

More than 500 volunteer dentists, dental hygienists and assistants staffed the mass clinic.

Dr. Randy Davis, a Manhattan dentist, said it was the first time he’d volunteered to help out at the clinic. By 10 a.m., he’d filled cavities in five patients’ teeth.

Only one of those patients, he said, needed one filling. Most needed three or more.

newborn_screening Linda Langley of White Cloud waits in line at the Kansas Mission of Mercy dental clinic to have several of her top teeth extracted on Friday. (Ann Williamson/KHI)

“What a great need,” he said. “These people really want it bad, or they wouldn’t be out in sub-freezing weather. It’s a really good feeling to be able to help.”

Linda Langley, of White Cloud, drove to Manhattan late Thursday night. She is missing most of her top teeth and needed the remaining extracted so she could get a top denture plate.

Her dentist had quoted her $1,500 for pulling the teeth. The 62-year-old is disabled and lives on Social Security.

“I think this is a wonderful program,” she said. “I think we need more of it. It would be good if they had one for ears and eyes, too.”

Hill said in the last eight years the clinics have served 15,000 patients and that the volunteers had donated about $6.4 million worth of care.

It’s clear, he said, that the need for dental care exists across the state.

“For every one patient we see, there are about 1,000 that we’re not able to see,” he said. “We’re doing what we can with the resources we have.”

Judy Wagner, vice president of mission services at Mercy Regional Medical Center in Manhattan, and co-chair of the local committee that assisted with the clinic, said she was pleased the clinic could help so many people in such a short amount of time.

But, she said, it’s not the answer to the bigger problem of serving the uninsured and underinsured.

“I think the important thing about the event is that it is not the solution to the problem,” Wagner said. “I’m a big believer in health care for all and that everyone should have access to the different pieces of the health care system. Dental care is one of those pieces.”

-Sarah Green is a staff writer for KHI News Service, which specializes in coverage of health issues facing Kansans. She can be reached at or at 785-233-5443, ext. 118.