Eye-opening, rewarding, amazing, fantastic – those were the words students from the North Platte Community College dental assisting program used to describe their experience with the Nebraska Mission of Mercy clinic in Grand Island over the weekend.
The students were among hundreds of dental professionals and volunteers helping to provide free dental services at the Pinnacle Bank Expo Center on Friday and Saturday. Many of the newcomers who arrived to set up equipment on Thursday evening were met with a surprise.
“There were already people lining up at the door, preparing to camp out,” said Liz Dowling, a 2015 graduate of NPCC’s dental assisting program. “That’s why I wanted to come. I had heard the stories and thought it was just an amazing service to get to provide.”
She jumped at the chance to assist with extractions and restorations.
“It has been so much fun,” Dowling said about halfway through the experience on Friday. “There are professionals who go all over the country doing this, so I’ve had the opportunity to hear some great stories and be a part of the camaraderie.”
Dowling’s employer, Dr. Tom Pratt, of Pratt Dental in North Platte, has attended every Mission of Mercy clinic Nebraska has offered since he went into practice.
“It’s very fulfilling,” said Pratt. “We get to help a lot of grateful people.”
That may have been an understatement. Services at the clinic, which included everything from X-rays and fillings to dentures and root canals, were offered on a first-come, first-served basis to anyone who wanted them – regardless of their financial situation.
However, organizers said the majority of patients didn’t have dental insurance and couldn’t otherwise afford dental care.
As a result, about 400 people were lined up when doors opened at 5 a.m. Friday. Only 650 were allowed in, according Dr. Steve Anderson, event organizer, so that dentists could have enough time to get through all of the procedures. Those turned away had the option of returning on Saturday.
Elisha Keim, a current NPCC dental assisting student, was one of the first people patients saw when they entered the building. She helped Dr. Jim States, a retired North Platte dentist, with triage.
“I had no idea this would be as big as it is,” Keim said, looking around the room at the hundreds of people sitting on metal folding chairs. “I also didn’t know such a need existed right in our backyard. It’s sad, but at the same time, it’s wonderful that these services are being offered.”
Her sentiments were exactly why Lauri Rogers, director of the dental assisting program at NPCC, wanted Keim to help with the clinic.
“This whole event is about gratitude,” said Rogers. “If students can’t find gratitude by being here, they’re going into the wrong profession.”
Rogers had the job of sterilizing and handing out equipment to dentists. Ironically, she ended up working with a handful of her former students, too.
“I’ve enjoyed that more than anything,” said Rogers. “It makes my heart happy to see them come back to one of these clinics on their own. They make me so proud.”
More information about Nebraska Mission of Mercy, including its history and the services it provides, can be found online at nebraskamissionofmercy.com.