Over 1,000 patients get free dental care at Duluth event – Duluth News Tribune

Over 1,000 patients get free dental care at Duluth event – Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — A line had already formed outside the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center by the time its doors opened at 5:30 a.m. Friday for the Mission of Mercy event.

Some had even arrived the night before, camping out to secure their spot to receive free dental care — no questions asked.

Three people converse over a counter

Volunteer registration lead Kim Williams helps volunteers as they arrive at the Misson of Mercy free dental care event.

Brielle Bredsten / Duluth Media Group

These are the gap people. These are the ones that try to live on $1,400 to $2,000 a month on Social Security. And something has to give.

Rep. Roger Skraba, R-Ely

“Whether they have insurance or don’t if they have a need of a pain and infection, we’re going to take care of it — whether it’s an extraction, whether it’s a filling, whether it’s just a basic cleaning,” Carmelo Cinqueonce, executive director of the Minnesota Dental Association, said. “We also want to make sure that we educate them on proper oral health. Oral health is good overall health.”

The setup covered the entire space with dental equipment, care stations and waiting areas. According to Cinqueonce, costs are well over $200,000 to execute an event of this scale — all covered by donations.

More than 580 volunteers, including dentists, dental assistants and dental hygienists, were expected to serve up to 1,200 individuals during the two-day clinic.


A dental professional reviews a patient’s X-rays during the Mission of Mercy event.

Brielle Bredsten / Duluth Media Group

“They’re giving up two days of practice time and coming here to provide care for those patients in need,” Cinqueonce said.

By 9:30 a.m. the first day, over 400 patients had been served. Mothers were waiting with their young children, elderly people with their spouses, disabled veterans and members of the Amish community. The dental disparity seemed to have no bounds.

According to Cinquenonce, several factors contribute to the gap in dental care for residents across the state: lack of insurance, cost of care, and difficulty accessing dental care in a community due to an overall lack of workforce in the industry.

Regardless of the reason that brought each patient to the door, the Minnesota Dental Association was focused on treating as many people as possible.

Delta Dental of Minnesota Foundation has been the signature sponsor of Mission of Mercy for eight years. The foundation also distributes 55,000 backpacks filled with dental supplies to first-grade students in 640 Minnesota schools through its Smile at Schools program.

Man and woman stand next to row of chairs

Minnesota Dental Association Executive Director Carmelo Cinqueonce and Delta Dental of Minnesota Foundation President Stephanie Albert are all smiles on the opening day of the Mission of Mercy event.

Brielle Bredsten / Duluth Media Group

“There are places throughout the state, Duluth included, where there’s just not enough locations for access,” said Stephanie Albert, Delta Dental of Minnesota Foundation president. “Folks may be afraid to go to the dentist. Maybe they don’t know where the dentist is. Maybe they don’t have the ability to communicate culturally or from an interpreter standpoint.”

The event aligns with the foundation’s mission to provide dental access, preventative care and education by supplying workforce resources and removing barriers to reduce social inequities.

“I have been walking around talking to some of the folks who have been here since three o’clock this morning waiting to come in,” Foundation President Stephanie Albert said. “The hope is that they get their acute pain taken care of, and learn a little bit about dental health. Then we can send them out and hopefully connect them with future care so they can keep that going.”

Mission of Mercy is a national event. Since 2012, these events have taken place biannually throughout the state, last appearing in Duluth in 2015.

“Patients come from all corners of the state. In fact, we even have patients from out of state that have come in for care,” Cinquenonce said.


Rep. Roger Skraba, R-Ely, attends the event at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.

Brielle Bredsten / Duluth Media Group

Rep. Roger Skraba, R-Ely, traveled from the Iron Range to attend the event Friday.

“There are a lot of elderly people. There’s a lot of kids,” Skraba said. “These are the gap people. These are the ones that try to live on $1,400 to $2,000 a month on Social Security. And something has to give. They have to pay for their meds. They have to pay for food. Some of them still pay for rent. They’re in a predicament; they come here, and they’re taken care of.”


Duluth Mayor Roger Reinert shakes hands with Carmelo Cinqueonce.

Brielle Bredsten / Duluth Media Group

Skraba attributed the high turnout to the dwindling number of dentists in rural areas, paired with the high care costs. He’d like to see a similar event on the Iron Range.

Duluth Mayor Roger Reinert also attended and expressed gratitude to the local providers and other volunteers who donated their time.

“For too many folks, dental care is sort of an extra; it’s a bonus,” he said. “It’s if I can afford it. It’s if it’s provided. And yet, so many health care issues originate with dental care.”

According to Reinert, accessible dental care is an issue that must continue to be raised with the state legislature.

“Getting on the front end and being proactive and preventive not only is the better moral approach, but it’s also the better economic approach,” Reinert said. “If the University of Minnesota ever wanted to bring a dental school to Duluth to pair with our medical school that focuses on small family practice in rural Minnesota, we’d be all about it.”

A woman sits on a folding chair, watching three children playing on the floor

Jodi Roberts, of Duluth, waits with her three children at the DECC.

Brielle Bredsten / Duluth Media Group

Jodi Roberts, of Duluth, brought her three preschool-aged children for a regular cleaning.

“I called a pediatric dentist and the wait was out until next year,” Roberts said.

Young man and woman smile at the camera while sitting on folding chairs

Thunder Strong and Alex Heinzer-Clark traveled from Chisholm to receive dental care.

Brielle Bredsten / Duluth Media Group

Thunder Strong and Alex Heinzer-Clark traveled from Chisholm in hopes of receiving much-needed dental care.

“To be honest, it means a lot because I’ve been having this pain with my teeth for years,” said Heinzer-Clark, who waited in line for her exposed wisdom teeth to be extracted. “I don’t have dental insurance, so I haven’t been able to get it fixed. And I finally got to get it fixed. I’m very nervous, though.”


Ryan Chrisco, of Virginia, waits to have a few teeth extracted.

Brielle Bredsten / Duluth Media Group

Ryan Chrisco, of Virginia, who arrived at 7 a.m., had been waiting in line for over three hours to have a few teeth extracted. For Chrisco, the ability to get the dental work done now, as opposed to waiting six months for his insurance to kick in through his employer, will allow him to expedite other much-needed oral care.

“This is a blessing,” Chrisco said.

Santos Luna moved to Duluth from Florida about a year ago. He was waiting in line at the event to replace some fillings that fell out and to have a tooth extracted.

A man in yellow sweatshirt holds a clipboard

Santos Luna waits to have fillings replaced and a tooth extracted.

Brielle Bredsten / Duluth Media Group

After previously living in pain due to experiencing multiple abscesses on a single tooth, Luna said he couldn’t afford to also address his other oral health concerns during a lapse in insurance coverage.

“When I was in Florida, it was just really hard to get dental work. People can die from stuff like that,” Luna said, choking up. “It’s truly a blessing and a gift from all the people that come here and donate their time or profession.”

Two women in light blue scrubs smile at the camera

Volunteers Patha Vue and Dina Akins are ready to hand out oral hygiene supplies to patients.

Brielle Bredsten / Duluth Media Group

As patients made their way toward the exit, volunteers Patha Vue and Dina Akins handed out free dental hygiene supplies. Both work as licensed dental assistants in Winona and Grand Rapids, respectively.

“It’s been amazing to see all the happy faces come and go,” said Vue, who has volunteered for Mission of Mercy in the past.

“I feel like they are just different. They are happy with what happened to them in the chair,” Akins added. “It’s life-changing for people.”

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