- Associated Press - Saturday, December 5, 2015

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - Raymond Burden’s eyes were red and rimmed with tears as he sat up from the dental chair, but the homeless Portland man’s smile was radiant.

And while his smile was brighter because of a new custom-made flipper - a lightweight removable denture, which replaced one of his missing upper front teeth - what’s really significant for Burden is that he now has a replacement for some missing back teeth.

“Ah, I can eat,” he said, as he sat up, and later he talked happily about how much he’d like to eat a pork chop, or potatoes that he doesn’t have to break up with his fingers before he puts them in his mouth. He said he’s been missing his teeth for more than five years.

“I feel good,” he said. “I can chew my food now.”

Burden received the dental care as part of the Oregon Dental Association’s free two-day clinic at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland. And Corvallis-based O’Brien Dental Lab has been an integral part of the “Missions of Mercy” the association has organized each year since the event’s start in 2010.

The company sends equipment and technicians to make all of the replacement teeth for each of the missions. Organizers estimate that this year’s Mission of Mercy helped more than 1,000 people, and O’Brien owner Derrick Luksch said that through the events the lab usually makes replacement teeth for more than 100 people. In fact, this year, O’Brien made $21,300 worth of dental appliances over the two days.

According to organizers, more than 1,400 volunteers work to make the event happen, including 200 dentists, and the dental care provided is worth around $600,000 to $800,000.

Weston Heringer, a dentist and the clinical lead for the event, says the work O’Brien does is the “icing on the cake” for the event.

“I can’t say enough good about those guys,” he said. “If you’re missing teeth, you don’t have good self-esteem, or you could have trouble getting a job. . It’s a life-changing experience because these are people who don’t have access to this kind of care.”

The event was structured so that providers were working in shifts from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. both days of the event. Heringer said people were lining up for free care nearly a day before the event opened. He said no proof of income is required: Anyone who attends gets care, including cleanings, fillings, and root canals. A separate area is dedicated to dentistry for families with kids.

The event takes up one of the main halls at the convention center, with stations for everything from X-rays to a bank of autoclaves for sterilizing equipment.

The convention center gives the association free use of the space - that’s why the clinic was held the week of Thanksgiving, which is typically a slow time of year for the center. Heringer said Patterson Dental donated $40,000 in supplies for the event. The dental association alternates between holding the event in Portland and elsewhere in the state every other year.

Heringer said that when the Missions of Mercy event first started, his expectation was that the clientele would mostly be homeless people, but the demographic it mainly attracted was the working poor.

“The reality is they are just hard-working people,” he said.

Heringer said at the first day of the last Mission of Mercy event, held in Salem, he was talking to a man about what time he would be able to return to the clinic on the next day to pick up some teeth that were being crafted for him.

The man thought he would leave his house at 6 a.m. and planned to make it to the event by 11 a.m., because he was planning to walk five hours to the clinic.

“If there was ever a person who deserved care, it was him,” said Heringer.

Bruce Austin, a Corvallis resident who was named Oregon Health Authority’s first-ever statewide dental director in January, worked at the event.

“It’s humbling to see the lengths some of them will go through to get care,” he said.

Austin, who has been a dentist for 20 years, said oral health is linked to overall health. For example, oral infections and inflammation can contribute to heart disease, some diabetes complications can be reduced with dental care, and women with gum disease often have premature babies with low birthweights.

Each year in Oregon, he said, the costs for treating people who come into the emergency room with dental issues is $8 million. In ERs, he said, doctors can only refer patients to a dentist and give them anti-inflammatory drugs and pain medication. The medication, he noted, does nothing to address the underlying problem.

“It’s $8 million wasted,” he said, “on things that are preventable.”

He also referenced a 2012 survey of elementary oral health by the Oregon Health Authority, which found that on any given day, as many as 3,800 children in first through third grades in Oregon are suffering from dental pain or infection; that’s 3 percent of children in that age group. The same study concluded over half of all Oregon children have cavities.

According to the Oregon Health Authority, only 22 percent of Oregon’s drinking water has fluoride, which the agency said is used to prevent tooth decay, especially in children. Austin said the fluoridation rate ranks among the nation’s lowest.

Austin called the Mission of Mercy a beautiful event.

“It’s a touching example of how much need we still have and the care that dentists give,” he said.

Impact on patients

Stacey Turpen is a Portland resident who has gotten care at the Mission of Mercy events since they began. She said she has lupus, which causes her to progressively lose her teeth to decay; she had her last one removed recently. She said she’s on disability Social Security, and can’t afford dental care, and she believes in the event so much she volunteers at it and knows the staff well.

Heringer asked Luksch if the lab team could put together a full set of dentures for Turpen, and Luksch agreed. Heringer said they don’t normally do full sets of dentures, but for a few patients they’ll try to go an extra mile.

Turpen said getting replacement teeth is life-changing.

“When you are missing a tooth in the front you have low self-esteem . and people judge you,” she said.

“The time they take out of their daily lives to do this, to help people, is amazing,” she said of the volunteers. “I love each and every person here.”

She said the happiness Burden showed upon getting his new teeth was typical.

“When they get fitted for their flipper or their partial, it’s amazing how bright they look,” she said.

Luksch said the Missions of Mercy are one of the few times his lab staff get to see the impact their products can have on people; the company supplies dentists throughout the Northwest and doesn’t normally get to interact directly with patients.

“We are not on the front lines like dentists,” he said.

Luksch said in the first year, the company made a tooth for a woman. Two years later, she came back to tell them she’d been able to get a job and later a promotion, thanks to having a replacement tooth.

“In our business we don’t normally get a chance to see the end result,” he said.

Luksch said he brought an entire lab of equipment and its crew up for the event, and his wife, daughter and office staff also came up to volunteer.

“People have been here since 3 a.m. and everyone is upbeat and chipper,” he said.

He said he hasn’t really calculated what it costs to participate in the Missions of Mercy.

“It’s one of those things you just do it, you don’t go back and think about what it cost you,” he said.

___

Information from: Gazette-Times, http://www.gtconnect.com

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