Dental caring

Hundreds of people lined up to see a dentist during a free clinic at Charleston Area Convention Center on Friday. Free cleanings, fillings, extractions and other services were offered.

Luis Rodriguez's teeth hurt so much he couldn't enjoy his favorite foods.

"I have a lot of problems when I eat, especially when you like beef and you can't eat it," the 52-year-old carpenter said. Rodriguez, of Hanahan, paid $200 to have his teeth cleaned six months ago. He couldn't afford to have his wisdom teeth extracted and get some cavities filled. There were many stories like that on Friday at the Charleston Area Convention Center, where a giant room was transformed into a dental triage center.

"It hurts," said Alejandro Calderon, 29, of North Charleston. With Rodriguez acting as interpreter, Calderon said she

was unemployed and unable to afford a dentist. "It's been a very long time," she said.

The opportunity to receive free cleanings, fillings, extractions and other services drew more than 700 people to the convention center, some of whom began lining up as early as 2 a.m. Dentist Ron Hamilton, a Seacoast Church pastor, said he pulled 13 teeth from the mouth of his first patient of the day. The problems he saw in the patient included abscesses and broken teeth. "He was a young guy, too, probably in his late 20s," Hamilton said.

Untreated dental problems can lead to serious health issues such as heart disease. The state Medicaid program provides tooth and gum care for kids, but the options are limited for adults without dental insurance who can't pay their way. The problem is exacerbated by the recession, Hamilton said.

To help needy adults, the South Carolina Dental Association, the Medical University of South Carolina, Seacoast Church and the convention center teamed up to sponsor two days of free dental care in North Charleston. About 100 dentists, 110 junior and senior students from the MUSC College of Dental Medicine and dozens of dental hygienists and assistants offered their services.

Dr. Charlie Maxwell of Johnsonville, SCDA president, said he expected the volunteers would treat a total of between 1,500 and 2,000 patients on Friday and today. "We knew the need was there. This is not an answer to the issue of underserved patients," Maxwell said. However, he said the event shows, "We care about the people we serve in this state." He hopes more of the free clinics will be offered. The North Carolina Dental Society and Virginia Dental Association provided equipment for the event, he said.

Dr. Jack Sanders, dean of the College of Dental Medicine, said the college trains the "head, hands and heart" of dentists. The free clinic offered students new experience with underserved patients. He said the students were seeing "multiple broken-down mouths" and "serious dental infections." One patient was sent for a biopsy because of a tongue lesion, he said.

"I've never seen anything quite like this. It's quite overwhelming to see everybody in the line," said Gail Watson of Greenville, a volunteer whose husband, Dr. David Watson, was treating patients at the free clinic.

South Carolina Dental Access Days continues from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. today. People who want free care should arrive at 6:30 a.m. to have the best chance of being seen on a first-come, first-serve basis. The care is offered for people 18 and older.