When the call went out looking for volunteers for the Mission of Mercy (MOM) dental clinic last weekend, it did not take much to convince dental hygienist Dawn Southerly, who works in a private practice in Burke, to sign up for all three days.
"It wasn't hard [to convince me]. I did MOM last year and loved it and had to come back," Southerly said.
From Friday through Sunday, the Mission of Mercy dental clinic was anticipating treating 1,000 patients from the five health districts in Northern Virginia — Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William — that fall at least 200 percent or below the poverty line. The Campbell Hoffman Foundation, located in Great Falls, which specializes in trying to increase medical access to underinsured patients, sponsored the event.
"We're serving the working poor," said JoAnn Knox, the executive director of the foundation. "There are 200,000 people estimated at 200 percent or below of the poverty line in Northern Virginia. And the biggest gap for dental care is for people 18 on up because there is no Medicaid or county or state sponsored access for them."
EACH OF THE FIVE health districts were given 250 slots for the clinic for patients that were referred from local health department clinics or other social services, Knox said. In addition, each district provided the 400 dental professionals and 400 general volunteers, including a contingent of Lions Club members. Additionally, the Northern Virginia Community College offered up the Medical Education Center in Springfield for the clinic.
"This is our second MOM and we're hoping to do it every year," Knox said.
The clinic was laid out in a series of stations that ranged from registration, to medical history, to cleanings and basic procedures, to the more complicated root canals, fillings and tooth extractions.
"It's non-stop. You have to move a lot faster in order to see everybody we want to see," Southerly said.
All of the dental professionals were also volunteering their time. Most of the services were being provided by dentists, dental assistants and dental hygienists from private practice, however dental students from the community college, the Virginia Commonwealth University and even one of Fairfax County Public Schools high-school academies were helping out wherever possible, said Knox.
"As professionals in health care, we see it as our duty to give back to the community," said Dr. Alonzo Bell, a dentist in private practice in Alexandria and president of the Northern Virginia Dental Society. "We're also dedicated to giving back to people's health care. A large population doesn't have access to health care."
Bell said MOM clinics typically take place in more rural portions of the state and people didn't realize there is just as great a need in the metropolitan area.
"This is possibly their only dental visit all year," Bell said of the patients.
This is Bell's second MOM. He said most of the volunteer professionals were working at least half a day, while others were working more shifts.
"SO FAR, I've seen about seven patients," Dr. Brenda Young, a dentist in private practice in Fairfax, said early Friday afternoon. "They are wonderful patients. Everybody is so appreciative, very accommodating."
Young is volunteering at her second MOMs, and also helps organize a similar clinic — Give Kids a Smile — aimed solely at children.
Young said she came back because the clinics "give you a good feeling that at least I made a difference."
She said access to health care will continue to become an issue in Northern Virginia. "There are so many people who can't afford health care," Young said. "I do this in my office too, for friends of existing patients."
Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Services Jane Woods visited the clinic Friday and was surprised at the number of volunteers on hand, but not the number of patients.
"When you see how many folks don't have access to health care, it's no small feat," she said of the clinic. "MOMs has eight projects of varying sizes across the state. The health department is not always funded or supported to do dental clinics. It's very scattered. It's not a consistent priority for state lawmakers."
Woods said throughout Virginia there is more access to medical care for children at least 200 percent above the poverty line, but for adults the limit is 80 percent above the poverty line.
"It's very difficult for adults to live in Northern Virginia and receive care," Woods said. "I'm thrilled people are getting care ... and it's phenomenal to see all these health care workers and volunteers."