The line of residents huddling from the front door to the back door of the Dena’ina center Friday wasn’t to see a rock star, actress, politician, or other celebrity. Despite frequent smiles, all were suffering pain, those smiles serving as evidence of their ability to cope with said pain. An unassuming, black and white placard profiling a toothbrush and molar logo promised them much desired relief.
Cleanings. Root canals. Fillings. Cosmetic retainers. Scaling, root planing, polishing, teeth whitening, and other dental hygiene services. By the time doors closed at 6 pm, 831 residents received that relief from 248 dentists and over a thousand volunteers.
Imagine going to the dentist without being asked, “Do you have insurance?” Think of finally getting that toothache checked without experiencing stress over medical bills that risk damaging your credit score further. Imagine not having to choose between the services you need, and the services you can afford. Whatever corrective measure is needed, that’s what you receive. No questions, no red tape.
Those imaginations flowed through the mind of a Cincinnati cosmetic dentist, Dr. Neilson, about approximately a year and a half ago. The challenge was to transfer the idea from imagination into living reality.
Neilson and his wife, also a retired dentist, even had a model. Thanks to professional dental associations, 26 states conduct an annual community-based multi-service dental event. Unfortunately, until Alaska Mission of Mercy (AKMOM) did it, such an event did not exist in the Last Frontier.
After a 30 year career, Neilson knew what to do. He was limited only in manpower and equipment. So, a meeting was held. The vision was communicated and the question was asked, “Who needs to be at this table?” The answer was: a joint venture with the Downtown Rotary Club, open communication with the Alaska Dental Society and volunteers — lots of volunteers.
But not just any volunteers. Logistical expert and volunteer Mike Redmond, also retired, stressed the value of recruiting people who already knew how to do the job. Pointing towards the biohazard area he said, “You can train a volunteer to handle bio waste, but isn’t it better to have someone volunteer who is a registered nurse?”
For example, Redmond entered a back office and returned with a professional schematic of the Dena’ina center’s entire first floor. Every square foot was accounted for. It was needed. In four hours, the contents of two 53-foot trailers were arranged according to the details of that schematic. Thursday night at 4:30 pm when the Fire Marshall performed his inspection, his concerns were resolved in 30 minutes — on the spot.
Finding the right person with the right skill-set for the right job works, but it takes time. It also takes money and organization.
How much money? $295,000. Not all of it cash. $95,000 came in the form of “in-kind donations,” like Redmond’s schematic.
How much organization? A flow chart with 43 leads and color-coordinated shirts and scrubs for each individual station.
“This is organized chaos,” Neilson said with walkie-talkie in hand.
“People want to help,” Redmond said. Very few providers enter practice solely for financial gain. Most devoted themselves to dentistry because they wanted to help other people. The trick is to give them a way to use their skill-sets outside their offices. The fact that some volunteers chose to pay their own way up from the Lower 48 proves, that if given the opportunity, providers will choose humanity over profits.
Learn more about Alaska Mission of Mercy at their website and find out how you can participate, donate, and/or volunteer next time.