Augusta’s James Brown Arena hosts 2018 GMOM
Augusta’s James Brown Arena hosts 2018 GMOM

Tears of Gratitude

2018 GMOM serves over 1,800 Augusta-area citizens

It’s 4:15 a.m. on a sweltering August day, and a line is already snaking around Augusta’s James Brown Arena.

The doors will open shortly, and dawn can’t come soon enough for those in attendance. Many have waited years for the service they are about to receive: dental care.

Take Julia*, for instance. “I haven’t been to a dentist in about 11 years, and some cavities are bothering me,” she says, her cheerful expression a testament to the stoicism that has undoubtedly helped her push through the pain.

Julia, a native of the Netherlands, insists her burdens are bearable, particularly now that relief is in sight. She is one of thousands of beneficiaries of the Georgia Mission of Mercy (GMOM), an initiative conceived nine years ago in the basement of a dentist in Smyrna, Georgia.

“I was on the Georgia Dental Association Public Relations Committee, and we wanted to figure out how to provide volunteer dental care on a large scale,” says Dr. Robin Reich, who recently concluded her tenure as president of the association. “Six of us brainstormed in the basement of my house and came up with the Georgia Mission of Mercy. I’m really proud of how it has evolved.”

The project no doubt looked daunting on paper. Dentistry involves lab work, sterilized equipment, finely calibrated instrumentation and computer-aided design and manufacturing that would seem extremely difficult to transport outside of a dental office on a massive scale.

Extremely difficult, but not impossible. Manpower, Reich knew, was the key. She and her colleagues launched an extensive outreach effort and soon secured the enthusiastic commitment of The Dental College of Georgia community, private-practice dentists, hygienists and other volunteers from virtually every walk of life willing to donate their time and talents to the cause. Since then, GMOM has become an almost-annual staple of summertime in Georgia, offering two days of free dentistry — extractions, fillings, root canals, dentures, partials and much more — to uninsured and socioeconomically disadvantaged citizens.

The locations vary from year to year, and Julia is ecstatic that Augusta was chosen for the 2018 event, held Aug. 10-11. “I read about it in the newspaper and thought, “Oh, this is so awesome!’” says the 67-year-old who has lived in the Augusta community for about 30 years.

She is far from alone in that assessment. Says Betty, an elderly woman in attendance with her sister, Vera, “I can’t remember the last time I went to a dentist. I have three problem teeth and have been in pain for a long time.”

Vera, who will receive her first set of dentures momentarily, has no teeth at all.

Once the doors open, Julia, Betty, Vera and the hundreds of others in line walk into a gleaming facility that runs like clockwork.

Volunteers register the attendants and route them through a highly efficient process enabling thousands of procedures to be performed in a single day. The floor of the arena has dozens of rows of dental chairs, and treatment will continue nonstop for the next 12 hours, then start again bright and early the following day. An onsite lab makes dentures, partials, fillings and other restorations quickly. Patients can fill prescriptions before walking out the door, as well as visit booths for oral health education, community resources and other services. Those who qualify will be referred to the DCG for ongoing treatment, enabling faculty-supervised students and residents to optimize their skills while serving citizens in desperate need of treatment.

“Dozens of our faculty, students, residents and staff volunteer for this event, and it’s hard to imagine a better use of our time and talents,” says DCG Dean Carol A. Lefebvre. “I’m so proud of our commitment to those in need, and I’m thrilled that our students get to participate in such a worthy effort. I hope it helps lay the groundwork for a lifetime of volunteerism on their part.”

Says Dr. Michael Pruett, program director and assistant professor of restorative sciences, “We have lots of residents and students volunteering alongside faculty today. We’re meeting the need, treating people as fast as they can get here. We even have an exchange student from France volunteering.”

“It’s going so smoothly,” says Zach Patterson, a third-year DCG student. “It’s really rewarding to be a part of such a amazing initiative.”

Says Dr. Paul Trotter, an Augusta orthodontist and 2010 DCG alumnus, “I think there’s a huge need for this type of service in Georgia and in our community. These are needs only dentists can fill,” he adds, noting that his father, Dr. T. Barrett Trotter (’73), is also on board.

The stakes are enormous. Untreated dental problems can lead to infection, malnutrition and other issues that can take a toll on overall health. Social and socioeconomic implications are also potentially devastating. Says Dr. Jonathon Bullard (’10), a GMOM volunteer, “Imagine having to go to a job interview if you’re missing a lot of teeth. Good dental care can change people’s whole lives.”

Says Dr. Nancy Young (’06), DCG assistant dean of student affairs, “The number of volunteers willing to take a vacation day to provide this service is incredible. When I walked in and saw how many volunteers were here, I got goosebumps.”

Their service inspires others as well. Says Dr. Lewis Petree, an adjunct DCG faculty member who practices general dentistry in Winder, Georgia, “My daughter volunteered with me at a GMOM in Perry, Georgia. She’d planned to go to medical school, but after that experience, she said, ‘This is what I want to do.’ That tickled her dad.”

His daughter, Margaret, enrolled in the DCG this fall.

Greg Earls, a sales representative volunteering for the event, shares a similar story. “My son, Bradley, is a senior at Georgia College in Milledgeville, and he wants to apply to dental school based partly on what he’s seen here as a volunteer,” he says. “We’re seeing people so grateful, they’re crying. They’re all so appreciative. This is what it’s all about.”

The patients who are leaving share their gratitude and astonishment that their dental problems have been alleviated. “Everything was so quick and painless,” says 30-year-old Diane, who attended with her mother. “We’re so glad we got this taken care of.”

As she and her mother walk outside, golf carts are shuttling a steady stream of newcomers from the parking lot to the entrance. The anticipation on their faces is palpable. Says Frank, age 67, as he awaits treatment, “I can’t believe this. God is good.”

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