Fillings. Extractions. Root canals. Not the most appealing way to start the day.
But Glenn Hemberger expects hundreds of people to be lining up well before dawn Friday and Saturday for the opportunity to be examined by a dentist and to get some long overdue dental work for free.
Hemberger and more than 100 other dentists — along with 1,300 dental hygienists, nurses and other volunteers — will set up shop in a vacant Walmart in Kansas City, Kan., for Kansas Mission of Mercy, a giant free dental clinic for adults and children that has been held at different venues across the state every year since 2003.
Kansas is among two dozen states, including Missouri, where dentists have organized Mission of Mercy clinics to reach underserved patients.
“There’s a large need, and with the economy, it’s getting worse,” said Hemberger, an Overland Park pediatric dentist and co-chair of this year’s Kansas clinic. “We see a lot of pretty desperate people.”
Many of the patients who show up at Mission of Mercy clinics haven’t been to a dentist in years — some because they’re squeamish, Hemberger said, but the vast majority because they can’t afford the care. Their dental problems grow worse over time, to the point where treatment becomes prohibitively expensive.
“We try to get some of the most costly work done,” Hemberger said. “And we try to give them hope. Many are despairing.”
The first Mission of Mercy was organized by dentists in Virginia to bring dental care into poor areas of the Appalachians. The idea spread quickly, first to Texas, then Kansas and Nebraska, then nationwide.
Kansas held its first two Missions of Mercy in 2003 in Garden City and at Kansas Speedway. Hemberger recalls arriving early on the morning of the Garden City clinic during a snowstorm and finding people already waiting.
“There were families standing, huddled in blankets as the snow was falling,” he said. “That’s something you’ll never forget.”
The Kansas clinic is being funded by donations and corporate and foundation grants. Kansas City Kansas Community College, which owns the former Walmart building at 65th Street and State Avenue, is letting the dentists use the facility.
Hemberger estimates that the volunteers will provide about $1.5 million worth of care over the two days.
Dentists will start seeing patients around 6:30 each morning, but the clinic’s doors will open at 5:30 a.m. It will be first come, first served, and 1,000 to 1,200 people will be allowed in each day, depending on the complexity of the treatments.
“If I really needed treatment, I’d put my heavy clothes on and get there before 5,” Hemberger said.
The volunteers will keep working each day until all the patients who were signed in have been seen. Sometimes that means clinics extend well into the evening, Hemberger said.
“I’ve seen some tired doctors and hygienists by the end of the day, but you see smiles on their faces. You get a lot of thanks.”