Doug Hardy photo

They packed the bleachers in the gymnasium at the old Tolland High School waiting their turn and watching the more than 190 volunteer dentists and 90 hygienists work on patients at the Connecticut Mission of Mercy free weekend dental clinic.

Some were in pain, most had no dental insurance, and most worked 40 hours a week.

Watch, listen, and read their stories below.

Amber Zigadlo, 20, of Stafford Springs said she’s been trying to get her cavity fixed for awhile, but between working 20 hours a week at the local Dunkin Donuts and 27 hours a week at Johnson Memorial Hospital there just never seems to be enough money.

Nancy Gulash of Hamden said at the moment she’s unemployed and her COBRA health insurance doesn’t cover dental. But that’s nothing new. She said her previous two employers didn’t offer dental insurance. She drove to Tolland Saturday because she recently had a filling fall out. She said she knew it would be a long drive from Hamden to Tolland, but figured she had nothing to lose.

Doreen Olsen of Ashford said she arrived at the clinic around 5:45 a.m. to get two of her 7 year old son’s teeth removed. Olsen said her son, Jeremy Krane, is on the state’s Medicaid program called HUSKY, which is supposed to cover dental work. However, Krane’s teeth needed to be taken out in pieces and Olsen said she “couldn’t get anyone to do it.”

Olsen said for the past 8 months she’s been unable to get an appointment with the oral surgeon’s office that accepts HUSKY insurance. “You get a recording saying all appointments are filled through May,” she said. Then when you call in May it will say all appointments are filled through June, Olsen said.

Natalie Echevarria, 18, of East Hartford said the last time she visited a dentist was maybe two or three years ago. As she waited her turn in the bleachers Saturday to get a few fillings, she said “this is like a once in a lifetime opportunity.” 

Six-hours after the clinic opened, Connecticut Mission of Mercy spokeswoman, Carol Dingeldey, said she believes they will end the day having treated more than 700 patients.

As she looked out over the gymnasium floor, she said, “This just underscores the need in a state with one of the highest per capita incomes.” Dr. Robert Schreibman, said earlier this week at a press conference, that 1 million Connecticut residents lack access to dental care. At that same press conference, Dr. Brian Duchan, president of the Connecticut State Dental Association, said he would like people to remember that what they’re doing this weekend at the free dental clinic is not the answer to the lack of access to dental care. “Charity is not a health care system,” he said. 

Congressman Joe Courtney received a tour of the massive operation Saturday afternoon.

Just outside the dental triage room, he said, “This is not cosmetic health care.” He said in Washington D.C. he’s been working with his colleagues to pass the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), which would help fund more robust dental services for children enrolled in Connecticut’s HUSKY program. He said the House passed the bill twice, the Senate passed the bill twice, but President George W. Bush vetoed it and Congress is six votes short of an override vote.

This is “visible evidence of why we need to get that bill over and done with and passed into law,” Courtney said.

Click here to hear WNPR’s report previewing the event.

The clinic will open again at 5 a.m. on Sunday, but will only be open until noon.