Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Jeff Lawton and U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

Jeff Lawton was stabbed in the face a few years ago and had six teeth broken in the process. On Friday, he was at the Connecticut Mission of Mercy free dental clinic in Hartford getting them repaired.

Lawton, a Navy veteran, explained that unless you’re fully disabled the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs doesn’t cover any dental care. He said he couldn’t afford to have his teeth fixed after the stabbing, so he “just let it go.”

U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, who was touring the clinic Friday, said “dental care is a stepchild in the medical care system.”

She said eyes, ears, teeth, and mental health don’t seem to count in the medical care system, “which is crazy because it’s your head.”

Lawton said he knows how important dental health is to his overall health, which is part of what motivated him to attend on Friday.

Carol Dingeldey, executive director of the Connecticut State Dental Association, said veterans won’t be able to jump the line at the two-day event, but they will receive preferential treatment.

Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Dental chairs set up at the clinic (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

Dingeldey asked Lawton how he heard about the clinic. Lawton told her he saw a flier at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The first patient in line for the clinic this year was George Sharrow of Bloomfield. He arrived at 3 p.m. on Thursday. He was joined by several others later in the day, who spent the night camped outside the XL Center to make sure they were able to get the dental care they needed. Patients are seen on a first-come, first-served basis.

As of noon Friday, 690 patients had made their way to the free clinic.

That’s about 400 fewer than past years and organizers and volunteers struggled to figure out the reason.

Dr. Jonathan Knapp said there is better dental care for children now than when the clinic began in 2008, so there are fewer child patients, but it’s harder to pinpoint the reason for the adults.

Knapp said they have repeat patients, who now attend the clinic on an annual basis and use it as their dental home.

“But we also know there are so many others out there who aren’t getting the care,” Knapp said.

Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Dental cleaning station (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

As part of their effort to promote the event, Knapp said they reached out to veteran’s organizations to make sure they knew about the clinic.

Knapp said employment issues may have kept many from attending Friday. He said many working poor are working several jobs and may not be able to attend the first day of the two-day clinic.

There’s also the venue.

Knapp said going to the dentist is intimidating for some and having it in such a public space may be concerning.

“You’re vulnerable when you go to the dentist and this adds a lack of privacy by holding it in such a public venue,” Knapp said.

For those who did attend the event Friday, many were able to receive more comprehensive dental care because they were able to get more than one procedure done, according to Knapp. For example, many were able to get a cleaning and a filling or another more advanced dental procedure.

The event is sponsored by the Connecticut Foundation for Dental Outreach, which organized the 1,300 volunteers and the 146 dental chairs set up in the basement of the XL Center. The clinic will reopen its doors at 6 a.m. Saturday.

The event was previously held at the XL Center in 2014 and $1,578,062 in free oral health care was provided to 2,295 patients.

Overall, the Connecticut Mission of Mercy Free Dental Clinic, in collaboration with the Connecticut State Dental Association, has treated 15,732 patients and provided $9,635,395 in free dental services to patients. Past clinics were held in Tolland (2008), New Haven (2009), Middletown (2010), Waterbury (2011), Danbury (2012), Bridgeport (2013), Hartford (2014), Danbury (2015) and a “MiniMOM” in East Lyme (2015). Next year’s clinic will be held in New Haven.