OAKLAND (KCBS) – It’s no secret that a trip to the dentist can be a painful experience. But, for some patients, the suffering starts long before being seated in the dentist’s chair. That’s because of the typically long lines outside facilities that cater to low-income men, women and children experiencing pain or other dental emergencies.

KCBS’ Mike Sugerman Reports:

There are surprisingly few full-service dental clinics for the needy in Northern California, which explains why people line up so far in advance for a chance to be seen at the Drop-In Dental Clinic and Oral Surgery Clinic at Highland Hospital in Oakland. Run by the Alameda County Medical Center, it provides invaluable services to the people who are lucky enough to be seen the same day they present to the clinic.

“I called them yesterday and they said you have to be here at 5:30 a.m. to get in line for the clinic,” recounted Stephanie Desverni, who sought treatment for a toothache. Not willing to take chances, she showed up even earlier, getting in line at 5:00 a.m.

In what could surely be called a sign of the times, Desverni arrived to find others in line ahead of her.

“If you’re not the first five to seven people here, which would be by 4:30 a.m. or 5:00 a.m., then you won’t be seen until before 4, 5, 6 in the evening,” Fremont resident Linda Ricenic described her earlier experiences at the Highland dental clinic. “I came about 10:00 p.m. Yeah, and I slept in my truck until 5:00 a.m.”

Ricenic’s persistence paid off – she was first in line for treatment of what she described as a tooth that was “killing her.”

By the time the clinic opened at 8:00 a.m., there were several dozen people waiting in line.

“We have six rooms back here for general dentistry,” described one of the treaters, Tony Mock, D.D.S. “It’s usually full, usually we have to fight for chairs.”

He recognized that the clinic was more than a mere safety net for struggling Bay Area residents.

“I can’t imagine where the people would go,” he said. “We’re just like the emergency room here.”

Case in point: patient Carlos Rio, who had no dental insurance.

“Oh boy, it hurts all the way up to my eyes now. It’s just throbbing pain,” he described his symptoms to Mock. “I’ve been kind of holding back until the afternoon is over, but it’s too painful. I can’t, I can’t hold back anymore.”

Those types of complaints were typical at the clinic.

“So how often have you been brushing your teeth?” Mock asked another patient, recognizing the importance of educating people about dental hygiene and preventative maintenance. “Small cavities become big cavities, big cavities become abscessed teeth, abscessed teeth become extractions.”

The mission was the same at a pediatric dental clinic inside San Jose’s Eastridge Mall.

“Schools will call up and they’ll say you know, there’s a child in pain, can you see the child? We will find a way to see a child that day,” Pam Alston, D.D.S. said with resolve about the clinic she runs.

She always makes a point of reinforcing to her young patients the need to stay on top of their dental health, recognizing that it might not always been the first thing on the parents’ minds.

“We are seeing children whose families had insurance before, but they don’t have insurance anymore,” she described the struggles so many Bay Area residents are facing. “So they’re coming to us as well.”

(© 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)


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