All David Joseph Moore wants for Christmas, he joked, is his two front teeth.
Except he wasn’t really joking. Moore, 44, has been missing the teeth since losing them after an auto accident in 1997.
It looks like today will be Christmas in July for Moore.
Having waited since Wednesday, Moore will be patient No. 1 when a mega-sized free dental clinic, Mission of Mercy, begins its two-day run at 5:30 a.m. today in Pioneer Hall at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.
He has the ticket to prove it. And it means he’ll finally be able to get his teeth replaced.
Moore was told only a limited number of partials could be done during the all-volunteer event, but that his early arrival assured he would be one of the recipients.
“That was my insurance,” Moore said. “The early bird gets the worm.”
It was midafternoon on Thursday and Moore was sitting in the front corner chair of many set up on the floor of the DECC’s old arena. He had slept outside the DECC the night before, Moore said, and had been invited in on Thursday morning to continue his wait. He was ready for another night, with a blanket, plastic bags filled with snacks, a paperback book and magazines.
As he spoke, an older woman came to stake out two seats. She planned to return at midnight with her granddaughter, she told a volunteer.
Eight people had signed up by 8:30 p.m. Thursday as security was making the rounds to lock up the DECC for the night, leaving only the doors to Pioneer Hall open for any patients entering overnight.
Deborah Kirpach of Duluth was settling in for the night as patient No. 6. She was in a minor car accident recently and shouldn’t be sleeping on the hard floor, she said, “but it’s worth it.” She brought a mat to sleep on and was using her rain jacket as a blanket. She took the bus to the DECC and wasn’t able to carry everything she needed plus a tent and sleeping bag, so she left those at home, she explained.
She was in line to get a check up because although she takes care of her teeth, she said she was cursed with bad teeth - she’s had four teeth pulled in the past five years. She doesn’t have dental insurance and even when she received insurance through an employer, she still couldn’t afford major dental work, she said.
“I’ve spent a fortune on my teeth over my lifetime,” she said.
In the past, her parents took her to Mexico for dental work because it’s cheaper than in the United States.
She was thrilled Mission of Mercy was hosting a clinic in Duluth. She texted her parents in Arizona a photo of her DECC campsite and they responded that they’re happy for her.
“I’m so grateful to the people who do this and donate their time,” she said.
If waiting all night to see the dentist seems astonishing, it isn’t to organizers of the event, which is taking place for the first time in Duluth and the fourth time in Minnesota.
“The first year we did it the first person got in line 36 hours before the doors opened,” said Dr. Steve Litton, a retired dentist from Golden Valley, Minn., who is president of the Minnesota Dental Foundation.
As he spoke on Thursday morning in the Duluth Curling Club, Pioneer Hall below him was a beehive of activity.
Electrical wiring was being hooked up and tables set up, and volunteers were covering their surfaces with plastic. Dozens of dental chairs were coming out of boxes and being set up in much the way one might set up a chaise lounge.
In one corner, several volunteers were seated on the floor, sorting post-operative instruction packets - in a variety of languages - that will be given to patients who receive oral surgery.
Boxes upon boxes filled with dental tools were yet to be unpacked. Each was carefully labeled along with a diagram of the tool, such as bird-beak forceps, spoon curettes, hemostats and the ominously named cryers.
Carrie Schutt, a volunteer from St. Paul, had walked up to the Curling Club with her son as soon as they arrived. They looked through the windows at Pioneer Hall.
“I just told him to look at the emptiness,” she related. “And in a few hours it will be a complete, functional place … out of what seems like chaos.”
Indeed, by mid-afternoon all but the finishing touches were in place. In a corner reserved for children and their parents, round tables were equipped with board games, puzzles and toys.
The various units within the outsized clinic were identified by the color of the plastic covering on the tables: green for dental hygiene, orange for oral surgery, pink for pediatrics, and so on.
For all of the activity, a calm, studied professionalism prevailed.
The leaders and many of the volunteers are veterans of the three previous Minnesota clinics, in Mankato, Bemidji and again in Mankato.
“This isn’t our first rodeo, as they say,” said Carmelo Clinqueonce, executive director of the Minnesota Dental Association. “Every year we’re learning, but we’ve got the system down pat.”
It’s quite a system, designed to care for a thousand patients each of the two days, said Dr. Alejandro Aguirre, a Twin Cities endodontist who is co-chairman of Minnesota Mission of Mercy. It requires the efforts of nearly a thousand volunteers, including 200 dentists and 400 hygienists and dental assistants.
One hundred dental stations are set up, Aguirre said, with a goal of turning each one around in under an hour for 10 hours.
Even with all of those volunteers, it’s an expensive proposition. The bill is expected to total between $215,000 and $220,000, Aguirre said. It’s picked up by various foundations and other donors, led by Delta Dental Foundation’s $150,000.
It’s a first-come, first-served clinic, which is why patients are encouraged to arrive early. In some states, the doors have opened at 5:30 a.m. and closed two hours later because the maximum number of patients already had been reached, Aguirre said.
That hasn’t happened in Minnesota, he said. “But there’s no guarantee. It’s always best to come earlier. We have closed the doors maybe at 2 sometimes.”
Clinqueonce said that in addition to meeting immediate and sometimes longstanding needs - such as Moore’s missing teeth - the event serves as a gigantic illustration of a pressing problem.
“Individuals are lining up 24, 48 hours in advance for the things that we might take for granted: a simple filling and/or just basic oral health care,” Clinqueonce said. “And so just raising awareness for that - there’s a tremendous need for oral health care in Minnesota.”
Sharree Cody, an assistant with Dr. Gary Madison of Madison-Nelson Family Dentistry in Duluth, said she and others from the practice were volunteering to help meet that need.
“It’s just a nice feeling that the availability is there to have work done for those who don’t have another option,” she said.
Schutt, who works for Metropolitan Pediatrics, a St. Paul dental clinic, is in charge of Mission of Mercy’s sterilization unit.
After each dental tool is used, it’s sent to her unit where it “gets sterilized, gets cleaned, baked, bagged, put back,” Schutt said. “It’s clean, it’s healthy, but they keep moving. Because if they don’t keep moving we don’t get to see the patients.”
Schutt filled the same role at the three previous Minnesota clinics. It sounds frenetic, it was suggested.
“It is,” Schutt said. “But the room is so full of love that you don’t even notice how busy you are because you’re just watching all these people go by. It’s wonderful.”