“Thank you,” she said to me as she sat on the steps, caressing her sore jaw.
“Me?” I said, turning to be sure she wasn’t talking to someone behind me, someone far more worthy of appreciation. “Oh, I’m just here to work with the media today.”
“Doesn’t matter,” she said, as her eyes welled with tears. “Every person here made this possible. I can’t thank you enough.”
This was the unexpected exchange I had with a woman at the South Carolina Dental Association’s Dental Access Days, a two-day free dental clinic that was held last month in Rock Hill, SC and sponsored by our client, Delta Dental.
Dental Access Days brought together 300 dental professionals from all over South Carolina, aided by more than 700 volunteers from the Rock Hill area, to deliver more than $1.2 million in dental services to more than 1,400 adults.
When I arrived at First Baptist Church Rock Hill that morning at 5:00 a.m., there was already a long line of people waiting outside. This line of 250 individuals had been pre-screened the day before and had already obtained a color-coded wristband that designated the type of dental procedure they were to receive.
Working with reporters on this side of the building for more than an hour, it wasn’t until mid-morning that I realized the “bigger” line was on the opposite side of the building. That line contained more than 750 people who had just shown up that morning, hoping to have a long-awaited dental procedure performed.
Many of these folks have been in pain for years. None of them have dental insurance. Many of them are out of work, or between jobs, or retired. Or their job doesn’t pay enough, and they have to decide between putting food on the table or getting a tooth pulled.
Whether they needed an extraction, a filling or a professional cleaning, it was worth it to them to wait in the dark, and eventually into the heat of the day, and in the rain, in the hopes of receiving care that they currently can’t afford.
It was a powerful scene, and one that became even more so as I moved inside to observe the church sanctuary/multipurpose room that had been converted into a full surgical theater. Rows and rows of dental chairs and equipment waited for the hundreds of patients, many of whom had driven long distances with high hopes that they would be able to get through the line before it was cut off.
The best vantage point was the stage at the front of the room, from which TV reporters and photographers set up their equipment to try and capture the sheer magnitude of the event. Everywhere you looked, you saw dentists, periodontists, oral surgeons, endodontists, dental hygienists, assistants and dental students as they worked patiently but swiftly to treat each patient, and then quickly move to the next one.
And here I was, the PR person whose job was to greet and escort members of the media and local dignitaries. I felt an incredible responsibility to tell the story of the dental professionals who so selflessly gave of their time and expertise to help so many strangers, as well as preserving the dignity of patients while capturing and sharing their powerful personal stories.
In addition to the woman who greeted me on the steps, throughout the day I observed patients crying tears of gratitude, hugging “their” dentist as they completed their procedures, and even taking photos with the person who had pulled their teeth!
Most people probably underestimate the value of a smile, but as one of the event organizers pointed out to me, a healthy smile can greatly increase someone’s self esteem, giving them the added confidence they need to go on a job interview or to otherwise get involved in their community.
“It’s not just about the dental work,” he said to me. “It’s about giving people their smile back, and helping them become contributing members of society.”
Including this year, Dental Access Days has provided more than 8,900 adults with $4.5 million in free dental care since the event’s inception in 2009. Delta Dental has a social mission to improve oral health in the communities they serve. Learn more at www.deltadentalsc.com.