We’ve all experienced the pain and discomfort of a toothache. Sometimes it can feel like torture. But imagine having a toothache that lasted for years, or a decade, and never goes away because you can’t afford to see a dentist. That’s probably not too hard to envision, since, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as many as 100 million Americans forego dental insurance due to the high cost. But ignoring dental problems can lead to other serious medical conditions and even death due to severe infection.
For most of us, a visit or two to the dentist will solve the problem. But what if you were homeless and couldn’t afford dental care or even have a way to get to a dental office? Since 2000, Tzu Chi Medical Foundation’s Mobile Dental Clinic has brought dental care to those who are living on the streets.
They’ve come for a meal, a shower, or one of the 170 cots they offer each night from December to March. And if it’s a Thursday or Friday night, they’re also there for free dental care from the Tzu Chi Mobile Dental Clinic.
Providing free medical care is nothing new for the Tzu Chi Foundation. Since 1993, they have been serving the underserved with their free clinic, community outreaches and mobile services for everything from pediatric to eldercare.
In 2014, for medical outreaches alone, nearly 10,000 patients were seen and treated by Tzu Chi’s medical and dental staff.
In the face of state and federal government spending cuts, Tzu Chi Foundation is a provider of last resort to these most vulnerable and needy members of the population. Robert McKennon, Director of The East San Gabriel Coalition for the Homeless, the group that operates the shelter, agreed. “As soon as the Government starts cutting back, the people that are going to be affected initially will be on the low end of the economic scale … those who need a safety net.”
“The fact that you have your mobile van that comes to where they are is really critical,” said McKennon.
Debra Boudreaux, former CEO of the Tzu Chi Medical Foundation, points out the inherent problem. “They [the homeless] don’t have transportation and they don’t feel comfortable with our clinics. That’s the reason we reach out to them.”
In the absence of proper dental care, the homeless often resort to drastic and dangerous measures. People will use unsterilized knives or tools like pliers to perform unsafe extractions themselves. One man even placed poisonous adhesive in his mouth.
“Yeah, I started using superglue to keep them in. That’s the truth. I used superglue and it lasted a while and you had to put more and more and eventually one day I was eating a hamburger and I swallowed them.” The Mobile Dental Clinic is fitting him for a new set of teeth.
One woman explained that although she applied for jobs every week, her appearance due to her missing teeth kept her from landing one. After she was treated, the woman smiled and told us, “If there was no dental [mobile clinic], I’d still be crying in pain.” The man who once used glue was hopeful about the future. “We need help, but we’ll survive. Some people are helping us. I’m really looking forward to getting some teeth again.” Another patient was humbled by the generosity of the volunteers, saying, “They really helped me. And I’m really thankful.”
Patients aren’t the only ones who benefit. Dr. Chris Liu, a dentist who has volunteered with Tzu Chi since 2003 remarked that before he became a volunteer he saw his work differently. He loved his job, and always performed to the highest standard, but he felt little personal connection with his patients. Working with the Mobile Dental Clinic, he was deeply moved by the spirit and compassion shown by his fellow volunteers, and believes it has made him a better dentist.
“To give is to receive,” said Dr. Liu.