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On a mission of making smiles

Sunday, February 3, 2013

NOREEN HYSLOP photos Dr. Eric Aubert, who practices dentistry in St. Louis, is pictured at work in the mobile unit at the Smiles of Hope dental clinic held in Dexter on the last Saturday of each month. At right, Dr. William Kane of Dexter is shown assessing a patient. Kane, along with Dexter native, Dr. Gary Riddle, has been a part of the monthly dental mission clinic held at the Lighthouse Christian Center since its inception in 2010. Riddle can be seen in the background working in the top photo behind Aubert.

Managing Editor

They begin to gather by early afternoon on the last Friday of every month. Before dawn on Saturday, a line of men and women has formed, each awaiting the opening of the Lighthouse Christian Center in Dexter where they have come to receive dental care at a minimal cost.

It is a mission in the truest sense of the word. Lighthouse Pastor Tim Russell along with Doctors William Kane and Gary Riddle, have been instrumental in the mission's efforts since its inception in 2010. Kevin DeArman serves as director of the project, which has been appropriately dubbed, "Smiles of Hope."

"It's a little chaotic," Kane says, between patients at a recent Saturday clinic, "but it's organized chaos."

There are no appointments for the Smiles of Hope dental clinic. Assessments and treatments are provided on a first come, first served basis.

Due to limited on-site equipment, the clinic, for now, deals only with tooth extractions. There is a fee of $20 for the service. The amount covers the visit and one extraction, with a five dollar charge for each additional tooth pulled. The money goes to cover a portion of the expenses in running the mission such as the x-rays and a full breakfast complete with biscuits and Southern chocolate gravy for volunteers and patients alike.

Guests are first registered, then directed to a room where x-rays are taken utilizing a state-of-the-art device recently donated by The Center for Oral Surgery in Cape Girardeau.

"The response from the dental community has been amazing," Kane explains. "We don't have a lot of equipment yet, but some of what has been donated is the very latest in technology."

The potential patients come from as far away as southern Illinois, Annapolis, Farmington, and Doniphan. But some are local residents of Stoddard County who have heard through word of mouth about the monthly mission. All have two things in common: They need immediate dental care, and they lack the financial resources to seek out that care in a traditional dental setting.

"These folks are from all walks of life," Kane notes. "We typically don't see children because Medicaid covers young children. We primarily see people between 20 and their early 80s who are uninsured for whatever reason and can't afford to go see a dentist."

Heather Mosbey of Fisk is typical of the clientele at the monthly event. A young mother in her 30s, she had put off seeing a dentist for nearly two years to have two impacted teeth extracted because she simply could not afford the price.

"The work would have cost me about $250 in a dentist's office, and I just didn't have it. I heard about the clinic through a family member," Mosbey says as she takes a seat for Kane to evaluate her situation.

Terry Stevens drove from Chaffee to be treated at Smiles of Hope.

"I'm unemployed," he explains. "I had a good job and lost it and lost all my insurance benefits, too."

Stevens' story is repeated throughout the day among the patients who file in to be assessed by Kane before proceeding to the next phase in their treatment, the "numbing" process.

Providing the numbing injections with the precision and expertise of a dental veteran is Dr. David Brown. There's good reason for that expertise. He recently came out of retirement following decades of practicing in Poplar Bluff, to join the mission team. Additionally, Dental Hygienist Lisa Kelly, an instructor from the Missouri Southern Hygiene School in Sikeston, is a faithful member of the mission and brings a handful of students from the school to participate.

Once patients are processed through the stations of the clinic, they proceed to the final stop -- the surgical unit -- which, for now, is housed in a mobile unit just outside the church doors.

It is at that final stop, in the mobile unit, where the very heart of the mission is heard beating. Inside the unit during a recent clinic were two dentists surrounded by a beehive of activity. Dr. Eric Aubert, a renowned St. Louis dentist and past president of the Missouri Dental Board, had traveled the furthest to participate. It was his second time at the church.

"The bottom line is the blessing," Aubert explains following his work in Dexter. "I came down here to learn, since we are looking at beginning a similar mission in St. Louis. I was overwhelmed, and I had on my scrubs, so I just jumped in. It is absolutely amazing. It is true brotherhood, and I love it."

Aubert was joined in the mobile unit by Dr. Gary Riddle, a Dexter native whose family practice is in Scott City and who, along with Kane, has been aboard since the mission's inception.

"It takes a great deal of effort by a lot of people to be able to do this," says Riddle. "We began this in a small bus with only a handful of people. I have found that people have been left to fend for themselves because state and federal governments have left them behind. They have opened clinics run on state and federal dollars, but they do not really help when help is needed. This mission is truly helping people who no one else will help. It is truly a blessing to be able to give."

Riddle's wife, Beth, and his daughter also work alongside him at every clinic.

Crowded into the mobile unit recently were nearly a dozen volunteers, made up of dental hygienists, nurses and a volunteer who found it her duty to simply hold the hand of one apprehensive patient undergoing multiple extractions. Compassion is key, as is evidenced by the dozens of volunteers on hand throughout the mission. Kane's own wife, Brenda, is one of those faithful volunteers. Donning her white lab coat, she and 48 others assist with triage and getting patients from station to station in the process of their stay at Smiles of Hope.

There is a distinct difference in the patients at the dental mission and those in a typical doctor's setting. Perhaps it is because they have that common ground that brought them to Smiles of Hope. Perhaps it's because they are on an even playing field. There is talk and banter among them -- and an abundance of hugs between the patients and the volunteers who are identified by the scrubs they wear. It is a place where 'thank you' is heard over and over.

Dr. Bill Kane is as devoted to the challenge of Smiles of Hope as any of its participants. He recalls one of many stories that have kept him coming back on the last Saturday of every month for nearly three years.

"There was a man who appeared at the mission one Saturday with a plastic zip-lock bag. In it were a few bills and several rolls of pennies and nickels. And to complete the $20 fee, there was a check from a friend in the amount of $1.30."

As it turned out, the gentleman needed multiple extractions. "We see a lot of people who have that $20 and say that's all they have, but they need three or four extractions. These people have waited for so long to get help. So, we take care of them and they're grateful -- they're all very grateful."

Other patients who can afford to return for additional work appear at the mission on another Saturday -- some for multiple Saturdays until their oral health is as it should be.

Looking back over the past three years, Kane is amazed that the need today is as vital as it was when the mission began. "We literally have not put a drop into the bucket," he says. "There is so much to be done."

At the end of what for some had been a 12-hour workday, when the halls and the makeshift clinic has been emptied of patients, the rooms that housed x-ray equipment and rows of waiting patients are transformed back into Sunday School classrooms at the church. There is a sense of accomplishment among the nearly 50 volunteers who make the dental mission day possible at the Lighthouse Christian Center. The reality has set in that they have managed to triage, evaluate, assess, and treat as many patients as there were volunteers for the day. More importantly, they did so with a Christian spirit of giving in the best sense of the word -- asking and expecting nothing in return, but receiving more than they could have imagined in the satisfaction of having made a difference in the lives of total strangers.

Devoted Lighthouse volunteer Ester Wheeler perhaps said it best when she surveyed the room of patients. "It's not just about people getting teeth pulled. It's about people meeting Jesus."

To volunteer or request additional information about Smiles of Hope, call 573-624-2500, Ext. 108.

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