Sheila Fowler is 43. She has short brown hair, a soft, girlish voice and three grandchildren. What she does not have is teeth, or a way to pay for dentures. But Fowler is stoic; she jokes that she's got tough gums, adding that she can even eat pretzels if she sucks on them for a bit.
Fowler has made the hour-long journey from her home in Cleveland, Va., to the small town of Wise to take advantage of a huge annual medical and dental expedition
She has almost no income after an auto accident left her unable to do her restaurant job. She's covered by the state Medicaid program, but Medicaid doesn't cover any preventive or routine dental care for adults. It will pay for emergency extractions, but, for Fowler, as for many others in areas where dentists are scarce, finding one that will take Medicaid payments isn't easy. That's why she came to Wise in 2003 to have her teeth pulled for free.
When she got her lower teeth out, volunteer dentists told Fowler that she had a few that could be saved, but she begged them to take every single one. "I said, 'Do it now while I'm here so that a week from now, after you're all gone, I don't have an infected tooth,'" she remembers.
It's a hot Thursday evening, and the clinic, which is held at the county fairgrounds, won't open till the next morning. But Fowler, her 28-year-old daughter and her daughter's husband, both of whom say they also urgently need painful teeth pulled, are camping to be sure they get a good spot in line.
They aren't the only ones. By 8 p.m. on Thursday, the parking lot is jammed with people hoping to be among the lucky patients who make it in to see the volunteer medical staff. At least 200 are turned away. Those who have gotten there early enough have their numbered blue admission tickets in hand. They don't even flinch when they're told that they're in for yet another six-hour wait."
"We see people waiting in those long lines and I simply don't know how they tolerate the pain they must be in because of infection and bleeding in their mouth," says Terry Dickinson, executive director of the Virginia Dental Association. And, says Dickinson, patients still are amazed that they don't have to pay for their care here: "I told a young lady here that we could remove her teeth, she was in her 20s, and she just started crying. 'You mean, I don't have to pay for that?' she asked."
The Doctors and Nurses who are doing this are doing profound good but it is just a small bandage on a gaping wound. They offer diabetes and heart disease check ups and other services in additional to dental care, but this is a one time a year operation that has far more business than they can handle. Once the teeth are pulled and the patient has had their diabetes and heart disease screenings and been told they will need on going care, the Doctors have to move on. Leaving their patients with new information about their medical situation and few viable ways to do much about it.
The people of southeastern Virginia go back to their normal lives. They are left Dealing with having limited to no health care and hoping that next year they can be one of the lucky lottery winners and get a set of dentures after they have the last of their teeth removed.
Our medical care delivery system is absolutely broken. It offers the finest of care in the world if money is no object. But if you are not blessed to have outstanding medical coverage or the wealth of Bill Gates it is a walled off garden that you can never get into. Instead, you get to camp out in a small town fair ground and have your teeth removed because you could not get basic medical care any other way.
It is tragic, aggravating and disgusting.
Health Care, Insurance, Poverty