Mission of Mercy program provides dental care in Appalachian Virginia
For more than two decades, the free events have offered care to underserved people in the commonwealth.
Tricia Counts lives near the Southwest Virginia town of Haysi. During the summer, she traveled an hour to Wise County to get her teeth cleaned.
“Just recently, I got an estimate from a dentist in the area; they wanted $300 just to clean,” Counts said. “And I wouldn't pay that. I couldn't pay that.”
Counts traveled to Wise because this year, like every year since July 2000, the Virginia Dental Association Foundation hosts a Mission of Mercy project. The event helps address the needs of thousands of Virginians who are unable to obtain dental care.
Dr. Terry Dickinson, former executive director of the Virginia Dental Association, created the program to provide free high-quality dental care.
For Counts, the challenge isn’t just the cost of dental procedures but also the shortage of health care options in her area.
“We had a very good dentist right in Haysi, but he retired,” Counts said. “So, I just haven't been able to find a dentist I like since him.”
According to a study by the Healthy Appalachia Institute, people living in Southwest Virginia face numerous roadblocks when it comes to oral health care — provider shortages, poverty, lack of dental insurance, difficulties accessing care, untreated dental disease and limited availability of fluoridated water.
Another challenge is the limited number of providers that accept patients with Medicare or Medicaid.
VDAF’s Mission of Mercy project allows people with income or insurance restrictions to turn to their free events for on-the-spot dental care. The MOM project provides patients with preventative, restorative and surgical dental treatments.
VDAF’s Executive Director Tara Quinn, knows what it is like to not have access to dental care. So, the mission feels personal to her.
“To see the extent of the suffering that comes from not being able to have oral health care — the pain, the impact on overall health, the impact on being able to apply for a job or keep a job to be able to focus in school for children that are in pain,” Quinn said. “I mean, it's so far reaching. And I feel very grateful to be able to be a little tiny part of the solution.”
The Mission of Mercy project has volunteers — like faculty and students at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Dentistry and practicing dentists — from all over the state.
Dr. Elizabeth Reynolds traveled nearly six hours from Richmond to Wise to run the triage, which is the first stop for patients coming to the MOM project. She’s been helping since the events started in 2000.
“We know that oral health impacts every aspect of our lives,” Reynolds said. “We forget that people who can't live with healthy oral health, don't have healthy overall health.”
Reynolds said that on top of the social determinants, fear and embarrassment also keep people away from the dentist’s office.
“People judge you without your teeth,” Reynolds said. “So, if you can take these folks, give them the confidence they need, and help restore their smile, you can change their lives. And we do that every day. We do it here. And I'll be honest, I think dentists do it every day in our own offices.”
This year, at the Wise County MOM event, VDAF reached a milestone. The group said it's provided $50 million in donated care since 2000 to Virginians.