Even while Blake Ledford held an ice pack to his right jaw, with his teeth discolored by blood, he still managed a slight smile.
“I might look like crap, but I’m extremely happy,” Ledford said around 8:45 a.m. Friday while sitting on the ground outside City Church in Gastonia.
Moments earlier, Ledford had three teeth pulled at the Missions of Mercy free dental clinic held Friday and Saturday at the church off South New Hope Road. For two years, Ledford had suffered with painful, abscessed teeth.
“They’re angels,” Ledford said of the dozens of dentists and volunteers helping at the clinic. “I can’t explain to you how grateful I am.”
Forty-five registered dentists, and even more volunteers, will care for up to 600 people in Gastonia over the two-day clinic, said Dr. Hannah Smith, who practices with Kintegra Pediatric Dentistry in Gastonia.
People started lining up outside the church on Thursday morning for the first-come, first-served clinic. Dozens of people were waiting outside the church-turned-clinic on Friday morning, and even more were inside either waiting for their turn at X-rays or to get a seat in the dozens of dental chairs set up in the church auditorium.
“You don’t get into health care unless you have a desire to help people,” Smith said. “We’re just here to do good and to help people.”
Like most states, North Carolina does not have enough dentists to serve all the people who need dental care, Smith said. Some counties in North Carolina do not have a dentist at all, many others have too few.
And with or without dental insurance, some people just cannot afford to get dental work done. Those coming to the Missions of Mercy clinic received initial examinations and X-rays, and were offered services ranging from cleanings, fillings, extractions and dentures.
“I’ve seen a lot of smiles this morning. A whole lot of smiles,” said Dr. Michael Bradley, a professor at the East Carolina University dental school, and one of the clinic organizers.
Gastonia’s free clinic marked the first Missions of Mercy event by the North Carolina Dental Society since 2019 in New Bern, Bradley said. COVID put a pause on the clinics, he said.
“This is the best environment,” Bradley said, while going from chair to chair to check on the progress of others. “It’s like a rock concert, and the care we get to give to people makes it a lot of fun.”
Several other East Carolina University dental school faculty also worked the clinic, as well as several dental students.
The dentists started work at 6 a.m. Friday, and they’ll go until 5 p.m. They plan to turnaround and do another 11-hour day Saturday. None of them get paid.
“You’re seeing a massive amount of dentistry going on,” said Bradley, wearing his ECU Pirate-inspired purple smock, while surveying the auditorium.
Before leaving, Ledford wanted to talk more about the care he received Friday. He lived with sore teeth for two years, and that was hard. But having a bad mouth, with rotten teeth damaged his self-esteem even more, he said.
“People judge you by your teeth,” said Ledford, a pastor in training at The Well Church in Moravian Falls, near North Wilkesboro.
As a minister, Ledford has to get up and talk in front of groups. His teeth made that hard to do, he said.
“What they’re doing helps so much in the way you feel about yourself,” he said.
You can reach Kevin Ellis at 704-201-7016 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.