When Dr. Robert Morabito, D.D.S. received his January 2006 edition of the Virginia Dental Association (VDA) newsletter, one article in particular caught his attention.
"It said that New Orleans was in desperate need of medical services and that they were recruiting volunteers," said Morabito.
Morabito, who lives in McLean with his wife and four children, was eager to help and jumped at the opportunity to offer his services. To his delight, his staff insisted on going as well.
"I was so proud that my staff volunteered," said Morabito.
On Wednesday, Feb. 8, Morabito shut down his Falls Church office and headed south with his dental hygenist, dental assistant and two members of his business staff. He estimates that keeping his office closed for five days cost him approximately $5,000 a day. However, for him, the lost profit was well worth the experience of helping those in need.
"It was probably the single most profound thing I've ever done in my life," said Morabito.
This Mission of Mercy or "MOM" project was one of many that the Virginia Dental Association has done in partnership with Remote Area Medical (RAM) since 2000. By recruiting volunteers, RAM was able to set up a week in February where residents of New Orleans could line up to see doctors and dentists free of charge.
"Remote Area Medical came up with the idea of setting up a project in New Orleans and the Virginia Dental Association provided the dental part of the project," said Barbara Rollins, a MOM logistics director with the VDA.
The VDA advertised the project in the American Dental Association newsletter as well as its own, so volunteers came from all over the country.
"We had 450 volunteers and 236 dentists from 38 states," said Rollins.
The entire MOM project was organized in just a little over one month's time.
"It was put together very quickly," said Rollins.
Despite this short preparation time frame, the program went off without a hitch. Only 6,000 patients were expected, but when the program ended on Feb. 12, approximately 18,000 patients had been seen in total. Among the dental patients there had been 3500 cleanings, 2400 extractions and 3800 fillings.
"When we talk about working in that kind of environment, that's a lot of dentistry," said Morabito.
ENVIRONMENT PLAYED A KEY ROLE in Morabito's New Orleans experience.
"You know, you think New Orleans and you think heat," said Morabito. "We expected it to be warm but it was in the 40's and high 30's."
This might not have mattered at all, had the operation been run inside a building, but that was not the case. Morabito and the other volunteers worked out of the Audubon Zoo.
"There were around 64 chairs set up, and they had part of those indoors, but most of them were outside on the patio and under tents," said Rollins.
Being exposed to the elements with no heat made for interesting work conditions.
"It offered a lot of challenges to the things we did," said Morabito. "For example when you do fillings you need the material to be soft like dough. When it's hard, it's like you're dealing with a rock. So we had patients holding fillings in their hands to keep them warm, or holding them up to a light."
As if that weren't enough, it also rained for two days, creating muddy conditions and causing the supply tent to collapse. However, Morabito said he was impressed by the positive attitude that was maintained throughout by both the volunteers and the patients.
"We would arrive in the morning and see 300 people standing in line," said Morabito. "They would get there at three and four in the morning and start lining up, and I got the sense that they were all used to waiting in lines because they would bring folding chairs with them."
In order to process people quickly, patients were only allowed to receive one procedure per day. So many patients showed up and waited in line everyday to get various work done.
"Not once did you hear anyone complain," said Morabito.
Barbara Rollins described the people and the atmosphere as "phenomenal."
"The patients were so grateful," she said.
Morabito says his experience in New Orleans was a sad reminder that attention to the dire situation in the south is falling off.
"The needs that these people have are tremendous," said Morabito.
While there, Morabito saw a multitude of different cases, all of which illustrated the astounding gaps in medical care that have resulted from devastation caused by the hurricanes. One patient had been midway through the process of having three crowns put in. He had only had the temporaries put on when Hurricane Katrina wiped out his dentist's office.
"His teeth had rotted underneath those temporaries so we had to take them out and start over," said Morabito.
He added that another positive aspect of the New Orleans MOM project was that the patients were not just given extractions to deal with problems.
"They received quality care," said Morabito. "We were performing root canals which are one of the most complicated and expensive dental procedures, in order to save their teeth."
Morabito was particularly proud that his entire staff had volunteered to come down as well. There were a multitude of dentists and a shortage of assistants. However, in true team spirit, everyone helped each other in the chaotic 7 a.m. - 5 p.m. workdays.
"My experience in New Orleans was amazing," said Yolanda Hutchins, a member of Morabito's business staff. "Hearing people's stories ripped your heart out... their appreciation for our oral health care services was incredibly gratifying."