by Andrew Nelson
ATLANTA (CNS) — Outside the doors of the Mercy Care clinic, within view of the towers of downtown Atlanta, patients wait, hoping to get a coveted walk-in slot in the dental clinic.
For those who work at the clinic, their work goes beyond pulling teeth and filling cavities. It is about lifting people up whom others mistreat or overlook.
“It is part of the healing process of getting their lives back in order,” said Dr. Rochelle Butler, the lead dentist, her braids pulled back and her face behind a plastic shield as she works.
In an effort to increase access to oral health care, Mercy Care is one of eight Georgia health centers to share nearly $3 million awarded by the agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services concerned with the medically uninsured, isolated or vulnerable.
The $525,000 grant for Mercy Care, announced June 16, will help the agency to expand to serve adults and children in crisis. The funding may help reduce the two-month waiting list for an appointment with a dentist. There were some 7,435 patient visits in 2015 to see four full-time Mercy Care dentists.
Once an offshoot of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Atlanta, the nonprofit now stands on its own since the hospital became part of Emory Healthcare in 2012. Mercy Care began as an extension of the ministry of the Sisters of Mercy, who founded St. Joseph’s Hospital in the 1880s. In 1985, Mercy Care incorporated as a nonprofit and in 2001 built its headquarters and clinic on a street opposite a mass transit station.
Its services are extensive, from primary care to mental health care, including sending mobile care clinics to shelters and church halls where the homeless congregate.
It began offering dental services in the mid-1980s and expanded about 10 years ago to include women, men and children without shelter, folks without insurance and other patients. Today about a third of its patients have been diagnosed with HIV. The dental service is unique in the community, offering cleaning, filling, X-rays, extractions and evaluations.
Butler could think of only two other Atlanta area agencies doing dental care dedicated to serving men and women without the ability to pay.
Butler, 50, marked a decade at Mercy Care in July. A New Orleans native, she thought about a career in medicine and studied at Xavier University of Louisiana, the nation’s only historically black Catholic college. An unplanned encounter with Dr. David Satcher, the future U.S. surgeon general, led her to Meharry Medical College’s dental school in Nashville, Tennessee. After practicing in California and Georgia, she started at the Mercy Care clinic.
“I wasn’t feeling fulfilled in what I was doing. I’ve been here since. I love it. I feel like it is my calling in life. It is what I was created to do,” she told The Georgia Bulletin, newspaper of the Atlanta Archdiocese. “It goes beyond dentistry. With our patients, you have people who are used to being mistreated. What we are doing here is what Jesus told us to do.”
Butler said she judges the work by asking, “Is Jesus pleased with what we are doing here?”
Most of the services are pulling teeth that cannot be saved. She understands that for those coming to this clinic, a dental visit can be a lower priority, competing with immediate needs, like keeping a roof over your head and eating.
“Most people come because they are in pain. The teeth are usually too far gone. Patients don’t come until the last minute,” Butler said. “I do understand their fear. I’m going to treat them like my mom and dad. Number one, Jesus Christ told us to.”
Medical studies link dental care access to overall good health. Dental disease puts people at higher risk for diabetes, heart disease and stroke, according to the U.S. Public Health Service.
Lawrence Whitefield, 46, has been visiting the clinic for a year. Before that he guesses he went about three years without a dentist appointment.
“Nobody wants to go to the dentist. You go to the dentist at the last part,” he said.
But his doctor, also at Mercy Care, prodded him to see one, said Whitefield, got a cleaning and had some cavities treated.
“Either you are going to the dentist or you are going to be miserable,” he said. Whitefield said he has since encouraged a friend to get services at Mercy Care because of the staff’s compassion.
The federal grant from the Health Resources & Services Administration of HHS will help Mercy Care expand its dental program to a couple of its centers. Plans also call for hiring a bilingual dentist to assist a growing number of Spanish-speaking patients.
The downtown clinic has six dental work areas. There are two dental hygienists and six dental assistants on staff. Patients are seen five days a week, both walk-ins and those with appointments. Dentists see as many as 14 patients a day.
The program costs about $1.5 million with only about 5 percent coming from paying patients and insurance reimbursements. Grants cover close to 60 percent of costs. More than $570,000 has to be raised from individual donors, corporations and foundations to cover the remaining dental program expenses, according to Mercy Care.
Dr. Katrina Schuler-Bacon has worked in the dental field for about 20 years, including in her own practice. She’s been at Mercy Care for a year.
She views the work as providing understanding and compassion.
“God had me in the field for reason. I can use my hand for helping,” she said. “We can give them medication, take away pain, give them hope. This blesses me.”