Christine Stuart photo
Line of dental chairs at the XL Center (Christine Stuart photo)

People started lining up at the XL Center in Hartford at 7:20 a.m. Thursday morning. That’s almost 24 hours before the Connecticut Mission of Mercy free dental clinic opened its doors.

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Close to 100 people spent the night outside to get first-come, first-serve free dental care.

Dr. Jonathan Knapp, who has been involved with the clinic since its inception seven years ago, said it’s a sign of the times.

“In general, companies that offer benefits cut you off at the neck in tough economic times,” Knapp said. “Mental, vision, dental are the first benefits to go.”

There are roughly 500,000 to 600,000 Connecticut residents without dental insurance.

By 9 a.m. Amie Weekley of Griswold was already back in line for a cleaning. She was one of the ones who spent the night outside the XL Center and the first order of business when she made her first trip through the clinic was to get a filling.

“We’re hardworking people who work 70 hours a week, but we’re too broke to afford dental care,” Weekley said.

Dr. Carolyn Malon said there are often repeat patients who will have work done on their teeth and get back in line and still have time for a cleaning.

Weekley said it was the first time she had been to the clinic and was grateful for the helpful volunteers. She was also thankful to the man who saw the line on the television news Thursday and brought them a pizza Thursday night.

Tara Hoffman, a disabled veteran from Somers, said she’s missing half a tooth and doesn’t have dental benefits. She said she’s in school trying to get her teaching degree, but it’s hard to concentrate when “you’re in pain all the time.”

Nancy Nelson of Brookfield said this was her second trip to the clinic. She had come two years ago to get a cavity filled.

“I hate the dentist, but I know how important oral health is,” Nelson said.

Kathie Delinski, who was with Nelson in line, said she is a special education paraprofessional and has dental insurance but the deductibles are so ridiculous it’s useless.

Delinski said she had a cracked tooth she hoped they could fix.

“I’m just lucky to have the opportunity,” she added.

By 9 a.m. James Tedford, the volunteer at the end of the line, was handing out number 758 to a woman who was just arriving.

Tedford, a member of AFSCME Council 4, said he arrived at the XL Center at 3 a.m. and he enjoys giving back to the community. He was just one of more than 1,600 volunteers who help make sure the event goes smoothly.

This year’s two-day clinic is the biggest the Connecticut Mission of Mercy has hosted over the past seven years. With 136 chairs, Dr. Bruce Tandy said he believes it’s the biggest clinic of its kind on the eastern seaboard.

Since 2008 the two-day clinic has served nearly 11,000 patients in Tolland, New Haven, Middletown, Waterbury, Danbury, and Bridgeport . During that time it has given away more than $6 million in free dental care at the annual events. Organizers estimated that over the next two days they will serve 2,000 patients.

From dentures to crowns to fillings and root canals, patients who attend the clinic will receive a full-range of services, but will only be able to get one service done at a time.

Knapp said over the years they’ve perfected the flow of the clinic and they have digital electronic records to keep track of the patients if they return.

“It runs so much more smoothly every year,” Knapp said. “The turn around for a single patient is usually around three hours.”

This year, pregnant women will be fast tracked to the front of the line to receive services, but only a handful had gone through the clinic Friday morning.

Jerry Kaizer of Murray Kaizer Dental Lab in Farmington said they’re trying to do more of the work on-site this year and will work through the night to get all the dentures done. Knapp said they’re working to turn around dentures in about three hours this year.

Across the exhibition hall in the basement of the XL Center was Dr. Roman Fedorciw, who was waiting for his first patient.

Fedorciw was using a new technology to do a digital impression of a tooth that speeds up the process of creating a crown. Traditionally, the process takes four to six weeks, but the new three-dimensional scanning device allows them to turn a crown around in as little as four hours.

Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman got a demonstration of the new technology on her Friday morning tour.

Wyman said she was encouraged by the crowd because it means that people know the importance of oral health on overall health.

“That’s why the chairs for cleanings are filled,” Wyman said.

She said she’s amazed that people are willing to go through the line twice in order to get a problem fixed and then a second time for a cleaning.