You don't really know how big a problem is until you see hundreds of people lined up, early in the morning, standing in the dark, in pain.

That was the scene Friday morning at the Charleston Area Convention Center, where local dentists were offering free dental care to whoever showed up, first come, first served.

Inside, more than 100 dentists, 75 assistants and 40 hygienists worked non-stop, filling 80 dental chairs as fast as they emptied, trying to assist those who needed their help.

William Gordon, 74, of North Charleston was one of the first in line.

"I'm here to have some teeth pulled," said Gordon, who showed up just after 5 a.m. to get help. "I've been having some pain, and I need to get it taken care of."

Many of the people in line were like Brian Rhodes from Charleston, who is self-employed but can't afford dental insurance.

"If I had dental insurance, I wouldn't be here," Rhodes said, as the chairs inside filled up and the line outside grew longer.

Continues today

The South Carolina Dental Association sponsored this two-day event called Dental Access Days and hopes to see 2,000 patients before it ends today at 1 p.m.

"This is the very first access program we have put on in the state of South Carolina," said Dr. Larry Ferguson, a Charleston dentist and former president of the association. "We knew there was a tremendous need. I've always wanted to help the less fortunate because of my background and how I grew up."

And the need was obvious. The floor of the convention center in North Charleston looked like a mobile military hospital as health care professionals in blue surgical garb worked feverishly to provide basic dental services such as cleaning, filling and pulling teeth.

Also on hand were 150 volunteers from Seacoast Church in Mount Pleasant, who greeted patients, helped with registration and provided interpreters when needed.

All the equipment was borrowed from North Carolina and Virginia, but the SCDA hopes to obtain its own and stage more free clinics across the state.

Unique environment

To see this kind of response further emphasizes how great the need is for health care across the state.

Indeed, it's the hard-working, under-served middle class, officials say, that often lets dental care slide when things get tough financially, and that can be costly.

"Infections in the mouth can lead to infections throughout the body and trouble controlling blood pressure," Ferguson said. "If you're a diabetic, it can cause trouble because patients aren't able to eat like they should and keep their blood sugar under control."

Also among those giving care were more than 100 dental students from the Medical University of South Carolina who were able to gain experience in a unique environment.

"Not only is this an educational component from the dentistry standpoint, but also from the heart standpoint," said Dr. Mark Barry, associate dean for clinical affairs at MUSC. "It's an opportunity to identify and see how much need there is out there."