Say Ahh!

Published 11:27 pm Saturday, December 3, 2011

Dentist: Virginia Beach dentist Dr. Dennis Cleckner extracts several of George Norfleet’s teeth during a charitable event on Saturday. It was 58-year-old Norfleet’s first time seeing a dentist. About 145 people received more than $125,000 worth of dental treatments during the two-day Dental Access Days.

Volunteers provide free dental treatment

It’s not often that a trip to the dentist can be described as life-changing. But for George Norfleet and about 145 other people in Suffolk on Friday and Saturday, the opportunity represented by a dental treatment chair was hard to describe otherwise.

Norfleet arrived at the Suffolk National Guard Armory for Dental Access Days with a mouthful of dental problems. He was seen by Dr. Dennis Cleckner, a Virginia Beach dentist, who told Norfleet that his bottom teeth were beyond repair and all needed to be extracted.

Norfleet, a 58-year-old Suffolk resident who had never seen a dentist before Saturday, had been a little worried about what the visit would be like after friends told him it would hurt.

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After having his bottom teeth extracted, however, he was in remarkably good spirits.

“I didn’t feel nothing but the needle,” he said. “It didn’t hurt at all. I appreciate y’all doing this for me.”

Norfleet’s dentist for the day, Dr. Cleckner, was one of 17 dentists from the area to volunteer their time for the charitable event. Dozens of dental hygienists and assistants from schools and professional organizations around the area also turned out to help, and there were even some volunteers on hand who had no connection to the dental field.

“Suffolk has been amazing,” said Vicki Britt, director of the dental assisting program at Medical Careers Institute in Virginia Beach, which sent dental assistants to the event. “The volunteers are just coming out of the woodwork.”

Those volunteers helped comfort and care for the patients, many of whom, like Norfleet, had never before been to a dentist.

“The dentist was excellent,” 64-year-old Andrea Jeter said as she prepared to leave after having one tooth filled and the others cleaned. “All the people here are friendly. I’m grateful. It’s a real benefit for everyone who’s here.”

Jeter said her Social Security income is too low to pay for dental visits, noting that it had been years since her mouth had been examined. Her teeth were in better shape than those of many of the other patients.

With limited time for each patient and no way to schedule or complete major dental projects, organizers said, treatment was limited to cleaning, fillings and extractions. Some patients were able to get flippers, acrylic partial dentures that are used to replace a few missing teeth. Dr. Keith Phillips was busy making flippers all day Friday and Saturday.

“At a lot of portable clinics, we see patients, and we just take out teeth,” said Phillips, a Yadkinville, N.C., dentist and one of the founders of the Giving Hand Foundation, which works with The Pankey Institute for Continuing Dental Education to provide equipment and setup for such clinics all along the East Coast.

“When we put these teeth in, that’s when we see the tears,” he added. “So much of our communication is based on faces and our smiles.”

Michelle Galloway, president of the Oral Health Improvement Coalition of South Hampton Roads, which partnered with the Obici Healthcare Foundation to host the event, recalled one woman who had received a flipper to replace her missing front teeth on Friday.

The woman told her dentist that now she’d be able to look for a job.

But the dental treatments were about far more than making people feel better about the way they look.

“The more we learn about dental, it has everything to do with health,” explained Candie Driskell, executive director of Access Partnership, which works to bring health care to all residents of Hampton Roads and referred many of the patients to the weekend event.

Driskell said other patients had been referred by area hospitals, which often see patients with emergency dental needs and no ability to pay for a dentist. Many times, the hospitals can do little for those patients besides give them antibiotics and painkillers, she said.

Dental Access Days gave nearly 150 of those underserved patients a rare opportunity to have their dental needs fulfilled.

“We’re trying to do as much on every single patient as we can,” said Phillips, the Yadkinville dentist, who estimated that patients would receive $1,000 to $1,200 worth of dental work each during the event.

“This is a life-changing experience for everybody who gets involved,” he said.