Dr. Emmett Wilson was talking enthusiastically about his plans to provide free dental care to hundreds in Greater Hartford next month.
Frankly, I was preoccupied. Just wanted the good doctor to polish, floss — and let me get on my way.
Then it hit me. Wilson's chatter was an example of a man being selfless. I was just being selfish. He is taking his gift — dentistry — and sharing it with others far less fortunate so that, for some small period at least, they could feel better about themselves.
Wilson is an ordinary man — a Guyana native in his 30th year of cleaning and fixing teeth on Albany Avenue in Hartford — doing an extraordinary thing. And he's not looking to get paid.So I started paying attention.
The first Inner City Dental Mission will provide free dental services — cleaning, extractions, X-rays, fillings and the like — to the first 500 who show up March 21, a Saturday, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., at Community Health Services Inc. on Albany Avenue.
About 25 other dentists will also volunteer. The University of Connecticut is sending over some of its top dental students and instructors to participate.
"Everything is falling nicely into place," Wilson said. "We hope people from the inner city who really need it will make use of it and that people who can afford it won't abuse it. What I'm seeing out there is a lot of middle-class to low-income folks who can't afford a dentist. They may have insurance, but they can't afford the co-pay."
The clinic is also coming at a time when the governor's proposed budget includes cutting funding for low-income adults in need of dental care in non-emergency situations.
Wilson, 64, traveled to Ghana last year to take part in a similar mission. About the same time, there was a free weekend dental clinic in suburban Tolland that had an overwhelming response.
If folks in middle-class Tolland were in need of free dental care, Wilson thought, just imagine the turnout if Connecticut's poorest city were to have such a thing. In short order, he started talking to local churches and community organizations, such as the West Indian Foundation. Before long, Wilson linked up with Community Health Services, which will cover the instruments and supplies.
"It's about reaching out, especially in this time when many people have no means of getting health care," said Leslie Perry, a retired Hartford schoolteacher and a founder of the West Indian Foundation Inc., which, along with Community Health Services, is sponsoring the event.
Like any other preventive health care, oral hygiene can get overlooked.
"We have serious oral health [problems] as early as 5 years old in some of the kids that we see in the schools," said Michael Sherman, CEO of CHS. "And some of these issues just compound themselves as they grow into adolescents."
Wilson said he has seen patients in their early 20s, with little or no insurance or employment, come in with infected gums and abscesses. They miss work because of the pain, are not confident or comfortable speaking because of the sores, and they can have chronic bad breath.
An infected mouth can also, Wilson said, lead to serious health problems — blockages in the stomach because food is not chewed properly; diabetes and strokes due to gum disease and plaque.
My time with Wilson was supposed to be of a routine nature.
But it's a visit I'll no longer take for granted.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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