Free Christmas Eve dental care brings smiles to patients’ faces

The office offering the gift of free Christmas Eve dental care wasn’t set to open until 5 a.m.

But at 3:37, in the black of early morning and with the wind chill factor nearly 20 degrees below zero, security cameras showed the first patient bundled against the freezing cold and waiting at the door.

Then another arrived, and another, until the line outside the Comfort Dental office at 651 E. U.S. 24 in Independence began to stretch into the parking lot.

“We’re on track to see 100 people today,” Dawn Findell, who helps coordinate care, said as she stood in an office where six dental chairs were filled and 40 patients jammed the waiting room.

Already Tuesday morning, the clinic had seen a young, poor mother with two children who ground her teeth so severely that they had broken off, leaving sharp points in need of extraction. There were men with infections and abscesses and children whose teeth needed cleaning.

Thirty years ago, in 1983, dentist Rick Kushner began what became a tradition of offering free dental care to anyone who showed up at his Arvada, Colo., office. He worked on 150 patients that day. In the following years, as his practice expanded to eventually become the Comfort Dental franchise operation, some 6,000 patients are seen for free each Christmas Eve at offices in 11 states, including four locations in the Kansas City area.

“I think it’s real awesome, a real blessing to a lot of people who can’t afford it,” said Lisa Carter, 43, of Independence, who came to have a tooth filled. “Dental care is so expensive. When you don’t have the insurance, it costs.”

The rules of the day put money aside, whether people had insurance or not. Although Medicaid does pay for dental care for children, pregnant women and some adults with certain disabilities, it generally does not cover dental care for adults.

The song lyric aside, Amanda Tully, 22, of Independence was hardly looking to have her two front teeth for Christmas; she had an abscess and needed a tooth removed.

“It’s important,” said Tully, whose real wish for Christmas is to somehow muster up a way to get her 1996 Oldsmobile fixed. She said she’d left it, broken down from overheating, in the parking lot at Walgreens.

She nonetheless showed up at the dentist’s office about 4:30 a.m. A bad tooth had been bothering her for nearly four months, but she didn’t have the money to care for it.

“My mouth is numb,” she said, smiling and laughing, gauze still set in the socket only minutes after her tooth was extracted. “I can’t feel half my face. This is really, really a big help.”

Staff members like Amanda Woods, 24, said they find the day inspiring. The office opens at 5 a.m. Christmas Eve and the work goes to half past noon. Woods said that when she first heard that a crazily busy Christmas Eve was one condition for employment, she was hardly thrilled.

“Who wants to work Christmas Eve? Who wants to work early?” she said.

But now, even at 41/2 months pregnant, she said, “I really like it.”