Dentists ride to the rescue at Free Clinic

Medical Teams International brings a dental van to help shoulder a day's demand for services

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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The waiting game for uninsured Clark County residents in need of dental services can stretch for months at the Free Clinic of Southwest Washington.

The clinic has 275 adults currently waiting for treatment. It may take two to three months for a person to make their way to the top of that list. Another 330 adults are waiting to be screened so they, too, can be added to the treatment waiting list. That wait list is about three to five months out, said Carolyn Noack, dental manager at the Free Clinic.

But on Friday, a couple of dozen people on the treatment list received the care they've been waiting for — thanks, in part, to a partnership between the Free Clinic of Southwest Washington and Medical Teams International, a nonprofit Christian global health organization.

For five hours Friday morning, volunteers with Medical Teams International parked their dental van next to the Free Clinic's van and the two organizations worked side-by-side to care for uninsured Clark County adults.

"It's huge," Noack said. "With a restorative list that's already backed up, it's huge."

The two organizations have teamed up for a handful of other events, such as Project Homeless Connect, but Friday was the first time the Medical Teams International van was at the Free Clinic site. The additional van, and volunteer dentist, allowed for twice as many patients to receive care, Noack said.

Such collaborations help the clinic to not only see more patients but also to occasionally provide services it may not typically be able to offer, such as cleanings, Noack said. The clinic works with numerous other local organizations — such as Kaiser Permanente, Gillespie Dental and Clark College — and relies on dentists, hygienists and dental assistants who volunteer their time, she said.

"The way the community comes together, it just makes such a difference," Noack said.

Vancouver resident Pamela Rapp was one of the patients who benefited from Friday's collaboration.

Rapp received two fillings. One was in a tooth with a cavity so severe that had she waited much longer, she would've needed a root canal.

"This is what they call a godsend," she said of the clinic.

Rapp, 55, is unemployed and without dental insurance. When she was working, she would go to a local dentist's office and make monthly payments for treatment. But without any money coming in, Rapp couldn't afford treatment.

The Free Clinic's services are "tremendously important" for Rapp and others like her, she said.

"Where else could you go?" she said.

Friday's visit was the first time Rapp received dental care at the clinic. She initially struggled with feelings of embarrassment for needing the help but came to realize getting the problem taken care of was more important than feeling proud.

"I don't know what I would do without it," Rapp said. "I don't want to abuse the system."

Rapp hopes down the road she'll be in a position to financially contribute to the clinic. And once she retires, she hopes to volunteer.

"Once you've been there and done it, you want to put yourself in a position to help somebody else," she said. "I want to be able to do that."