A dental volunteer performs a cleaning for one of many patients to attend the Mission of Mercy project held at the North Virginia Community College campus on Saturday. MOM offers services to low-income populations in the area.

HED: Volunteer dental clinic provides care for patients without access

SUB: Northern Virginia Community College and the Northern Virginia Dental Society partnered to put on Mission of Mercy for the 13th year

The woman’s face lit up when she recognized Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), who was inching his way through the crowded makeshift dental clinic.

“Oh my goodness!” she gasped, her eyes wide as she shook the senator’s hand and stood next to him for a photograph.

Kaine’s tour through the Mission of Mercy (MOM), a free dental clinic hosted by the Northern Virginia Dental Society (NVDS) at the Northern Virginia Community College’s (NOVA) medical education campus in Springfield, was full of interruptions like this.

Waiting patients asked if he’d take a picture with them, while volunteers wearing scrubs or T-shirts with pinned name tags thanked him for taking the time to stop by.

When Kaine arrived around 9:00 a.m. on Mar. 11, the two-day-long clinic had already been operating for two hours. By the time it closed at 5:00 p.m. on Mar. 12, MOM had serviced 885 low-income residents from Fairfax, Alexandria, Arlington, Prince William and Loudoun counties.

According to Dr. James Willis, who led Kaine’s tour and serves as NVDS vice president and MOM’s chair of community outreach, that number of attendees is standard for the clinic, which has treated between 800 and 900 patients every year since it started at NOVA 13 years ago.

“It’s amazing,” Willis said when asked how the clinic has grown since its inception. “It’s a well-oiled machine, but there are always improvements that you can make, so each year, there’s some incremental step that we take to make things go a little more smoothly.”

MOM provides dental care, from routine cleanings and fillings to root canals and oral surgery, to North Virginia residents who live at 200 percent or more below the federal poverty line.

Most patients are referred to the clinic by social services and register beforehand to secure a guaranteed time slot, but the clinic also accepts walk-ins, though a surplus of registered patients meant that workers accommodated only about 60 walk-ins this year.

Scheduled each year to coincide with NOVA students’ spring break, MOM is run by volunteering dental professionals, students and community members. This year’s clinic featured around 500 volunteers, including 107 general dentists, 36 specialists, 128 dental assistants, 33 hygiene or dental assisting students, and 180 community volunteers.

The clinic provided over $617,000 worth of free dental treatment, according to NVDS executive director Catherine Griffanti. There were 807 exams, 200 cleanings, more than 1,000 x-rays, 805 fillings, 442 extractions, 50 root canals and at least one oral biopsy.

“We’re trying to make a difference,” Griffanti said. “Your overall health begins in your mouth, and these people don’t have the education and access to care.”

Springfield isn’t the only location in Virginia to have a MOM.

The Virginia Dental Association launched the MOM program in 2000 with a clinic in Wise County as the organization sought to help an estimated 3.8 million people in the state without dental insurance. The program’s mobile clinics now provide treatment to more than 4,000 individuals each year.

NVDS is a local branch of the Virginia Dental Association and American Dental Association, consisting of approximately 1,300 practicing dentists from across the Northern Virginia area.

NVDS partnered with NOVA and started planning the MOM clinic in 2001.

“This is one way of us giving back,” Dr. Mary Pryor, assistant dean of NOVA’s dental hygiene program, said. “It’s important because it…allows economically challenged populations access to healthcare, so it’s a value to the community.”

In addition to providing immediate dental care, one of the goals of MOM is to connect patients with educational resources and venues where they can receive ongoing care.

DentaQuest, a dental benefits administrator dedicated to promoting oral health, handed out toothbrushes, toothpaste and floss to patients after they finished their clinic visit while also providing information on how they can follow-up with their treatment. The clinic also featured a booth for FAMIS, Virginia’s health insurance program for children.

NVDS coordinates with local schools to provide screenings, cleanings and fluoride treatment to children every February for Give Kids a Smile Day, which is also held at NOVA. The organization treated around 300 children with this year’s event, according to Griffanti.

NVDS also runs year-round clinics in Fairfax and Sterling for people who lack oral health insurance coverage and are 200 percent or more below the poverty line.

While the clinics aren’t free, they’re heavily subsidized so that a visit could cost around $30 or 40 regardless of the kind of treatment needed by the patient.

“We really are trying to educate patients to let them know that those clinics are available,” Willis said. “We really want to encourage not just our patients, but also our doctors and volunteers to support those clinics through volunteerism.”

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