OKC clinic pulls teeth for free, but hundreds still need care
Oklahoma City — Clinton Short sounded upbeat for a man about to get four teeth pulled.
Then again, he'd already been through 11 extractions the week before, and an infection had caused his face to swell to the point that getting the teeth out was a “blessing,” he said while waiting his turn at Good Shepherd Ministries' weekly extraction clinic.
Short, of Oklahoma City, said he'd gone without dental insurance while working as an electrician for most of his adult life. He recently got a job with insurance that will pay for dentures, but the infection couldn't wait until the insurance paperwork went through.
“This is my second time in here (at Good Shepherd) and my third time seeing a dentist in my life,” said Short, 37.
That's not an uncommon situation for people who come to the clinic for free extractions on Monday evenings, said Shane Fehrenbach, a dental hygienist who works there.
“Sometimes people haven't been to the dentist in their entire lives and they're in their 40s, 50s, 60s,” he said.
The Good Shepherd staff try to refer patients for follow-up care because they can only provide routine cleanings to patients who also get their medical care at the clinic, dental director Jeannie Bath said. Most of the dentists are volunteers, and dental and predental students who have assisting licenses help out.
Mason Kim, who is applying to the University of Oklahoma's College of Dentistry, said preparing patients and assisting the dentists has given him valuable insight before he goes into the field. It also feels good to see patients benefit, he said.
“It's surprising how many people suffer from lack of care,” he said. “Whenever they come here, they can get help and they're not in pain.”
Though the providers change depending on who can volunteer any given night, the clinic isn't obviously different from other dentists' offices. The volunteers start by checking patients' blood pressure to make sure they can tolerate the numbing medication, then take x-rays and assess which teeth need to come out. Brochures in English and Spanish remind parents about the importance of brushing their children's teeth and try to shock them with the amount of sugar in a bottle of soda. The only thing that seems odd is the quiet — there's no need to drill when pulling teeth, and at times the loudest sound is the dentists querying their young assistants about their career plans.
The extraction clinic can only take about 16 patients each week, Fehrenbach said, but hundreds of people without insurance call each Monday seeking one of those spots. To start making a dent in the unmet need, they and other free clinics would need more funding to serve uninsured patients, he said.
“We are slowly chipping away, but it'd be easier to see 50 than 16” at a time, he said. “You get about 500 calls every Monday. It really just is luck of the draw.”
Short said he tried to get free dental care for years, but got lucky last week when his mother-in-law called on his behalf at just the right time.
“This place has been a blessing for me,” he said. “It was long overdue, and I couldn't find any other help for a limited budget.”
For a space in the tooth extraction free clinic, call Good Shepherd Ministries, (405) 232-8631, at 8:30 a.m. Mondays. About 16 slots are available each week to those who call first.