Cathy Seay lived with pain for years. On Thursday, thanks to a partnership between the nonprofit mobile dental clinic Appalachian Miles for Smiles and Mount Zion United Methodist Church, she found relief.
Seay registered for the free clinic and described her plight while waiting for a dental hygienist to take an X-ray of her jaw.
It began when she was riding along with her trucker husband and got slung face first into the rig’s CB radio while on the road. It left many of her teeth badly damaged.
“It cracked them, and they broke off into the gum,” Seay said.
“I waitressed for years. I’m not working now, because where I worked at closed,” she added, explaining why she has no insurance and can’t afford the dental care she needs.
Seay described waking up to find in her mouth pieces of her teeth that had crumbled during the night. She suffered chronic sinus infections and headaches. She ended up in the ER on a few occasions when her face and head “swelled up like a basketball.”
A doctor told her that her teeth were poisoning her body. When he told her to get them out or buy herself a casket, Seay couldn’t imagine how she could get it done. The $7,200 price a Greeneville dentist gave her was beyond her ability to pay.
Hearing about the clinic gave her hope.
“It means everything to me, because this is unbearable pain,” she said. “I’m just hoping and praying that they can do something.”
Aundrea Christian, a certified dental hygienist who volunteers with the clinic and serves as one of its coordinators, assured Seay that they could help her.
“We’ll get you taken care of,” Christian told her. “We can get them out.”
After looking at Seay’s X-ray, she forwarded the image and her recommendations from the trailer that houses machines for dental and chest X-rays to the dentists and other hygienists in the dental clinic trailer via an encrypted wireless signal that keeps patient records secure.
A NEED, A VISION
Appalachian Miles for Smiles began as a vision of Frank Waldo.
“I was at a Remote Area Medical clinic and at the end of the day we had to turn people away,” Waldo said. “There was one lady, she was just crying with a broken heart. I mean wailing, just couldn’t stop. I went down to see what was going on and she was one that was turned away.”
Her despair broke Waldo’s heart.
“I said, ‘Lord, if there’s anything I can do to help these people I will,’” he explained. “Two weeks later, I was invited to speak to a committee that Bruce Stiles (of the Kingsport-based nonprofit Friends In Need) was on, which was a United Way Vision committee.
“God had put a vision of this thing in my brain, so I presented it to all of them.”
Stiles, who is now the executive director of Appalachian Miles for Smiles, put together the business plan and did some fundraising. It has been operating since June 2016 under Friends In Need, which also serves as a brick and mortar follow-up on a sliding fee scale for patients who need additional care after visiting the mobile clinic.
“In reality, God led Frank and us together at the right time, when we were able to bring both of our talents to bear to make this thing happen,” Sites said. “Every time we needed something, it showed up.”
Needed items keep showing up. Philanthropist Scott Niswonger donated the first trailer the clinic is using now. It operates with an accompanying X-ray trailer as a community coalition, partnering with other organizations and churches.
An architect drew up the plans to efficiently house state-of-the-art equipment inside. Waldo and volunteer laborers then built it.
Including the $40,000 value of the trailer, the group built and furnished it for $250,000. According to Stiles, it would have cost close to $1 million if they’d had to purchase a completely furnished state-of-the-art mobile clinic.
Niswonger also donated the tractor rig used to pull the dental and X-ray trailers.
The Cigna Corporation, an insurance company, just donated another trailer to the organization. It will be converted into an eye exam unit and accompany the dental clinic and Remote Area Medical clinics.
Joe Smiddy, a retired pulmonologist who provides chest X-rays and other medical tests alongside the dental clinic, said that he has diagnosed a number of medical issues when patients come to the clinic, including lung cancer.
“We deal with a lot of very young people who are just totally out of the system, have no access to the dental system, and then we’re picking up on tobacco, substances, diabetes and hypertension and other medical issues that go along with just being out of the medical system,” Smiddy said. “We’re not at all political. None of us are into any political commentary; this is just real people with real needs. That’s what it’s about for us.”
He noted that he practiced medicine in the area for 45 years and thinks that the dental health, mental and physical health of area residents has never been worse.
“It’s alarming,” he said.
To try to meet that need, the clinic was established as a collaborative effort between Friends in Need, Remote Area Medical and United Way of Kingsport, along with a number of other supporters. The clinic is staffed by volunteers that provide 25 clinics a year, which works out to approximately one every other week. They can serve up to 50 people a day.
So far this year, officials say it has seen more than 2,000 patients and provided more than $4,000 in dental services.
Smiddy said, in addition to the other partnerships and support, they also depend on the state to keep the clinic operating.
“We depend on the safety net money to do this,” he explained. “This is free (care we provide). We have to buy the supplies. Nobody donates the supplies.”
State Rep. David Hawk, of Greeneville, toured the clinic on Thursday and said he’d like to see if the minimal amount of money that goes toward providing dental services through clinics like Appalachian Miles for Smiles can be expanded.
“As they mentioned, the state has a semblance of a safety net,” said Hawk. “There are some state dollars that go to dental needs, but it’s very minimal in terms of what the actual costs of these dental services are.
“So as I look underneath all our health services provided within the state of Tennessee, after seeing such dramatic need at the area clinics compared to how few people we’re actually able to care for, hopefully I can go in and better match the needs with the dollars available.”
Debbie Morgan, a member of Mount Zion United Methodist Church, said the church is glad to be able to host the clinic.
“They’ve been doing this for several years and this is the first time they’ e come to Greene County,” Morgan said. “We’re excited that Mount Zion was the first Miles for Smiles clinic site in Greene County.”
Morgan, who also works at Friends In Need in Kingsport, learned that the clinic had an opening in September and approached the church’s board of trustees. The proposal was met with excitement.
Morgan advertised the clinic dates on My Greeneville and all the appointment slots were filled by the end of the following day.
“I had one woman cry when she made the appointment,” she said. “She couldn’t believe something like this as available.”
Morgan said 25 church members helped cook and serve a spaghetti meal to the clinic volunteers.
The church plans to host another clinic next year.
FREE FROM PAIN
After Cathy Seay’s X-rays were taken Thursday, Aundrea Christian, the dental hygienist treating her at the clinic, explained to her that she’d most likely be looking at total extraction from her upper jaw. That will allow her to have a denture made so she can eat normally.
Seay expressed gratitude that she would soon be free from pain, but said the cost of dentures is more than she and her husband can handle in their current circumstances.
“I’ll have to try to figure out how to do that, because my husband is on disability,” she said. “He’s had two heart attacks and prostate cancer and probably will go in for bypass surgery right now.”
The clinic doesn’t provide dentures, but Christian recommended Seay fill out an application for Friends In Need, saying there may still be grant money available to offset the cost of dentures and partials for Tennessee residents.
Seay, and all the patients seen at the clinic, are likely a drop in the bucket of the area’s total need. According to Stiles, there are about 70,000 people who don’t have medical insurance in the counties served by the mobile clinic and Friends In Need
“And more people don’t have dental insurance,” he said. “My estimate is there are over 100,000 people in the counties we serve that don’t have any access to dental care.”
The clinic serves Washington, Sullivan, Hawkins and Greene counties in Tennessee and Scott Wise and Lee counties in Virginia.
Seay described her experience at the clinic in a phone call on Friday.
“I was scared to death,” she said. “I won’t lie to you.”
She said the dental team extracted 14 of her teeth, and now she has high praise for them.
“I couldn’t have wished for anyone better than he was to me,” she said. “There were tears coming out of my eyes because I was so scared and he stopped to wipe them away.”
The procedure didn’t cause the pain she expected and left her with little soreness on Friday afternoon.
Seay credits the clinic with not only saving her life, but giving her a life changing new beginning. Now that her teeth are out and she can look forward to better health, she plans to go back to work.