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Dental faculty, staff busy preparing for third annual R.I. Mission of Mercy free clinic

May 29, 2014

A patient at last year's Rhode Island Mission of Mercy free dental clinic gives a thumbs-up to the dental staff. A patient at last year's Rhode Island Mission of Mercy free dental clinic gives a thumbs-up to the dental staff. The third annual event will be held Saturday and Sunday, May 31 and June 1, at CCRI's Flanagan Campus in Lincoln.

All was quiet in the Dental Hygiene Clinic at the CCRI Flanagan Campus in Lincoln earlier this week; it was what can only be described as the calm before the storm. On Saturday and Sunday, as CCRI hosts the third annual Rhode Island Mission of Mercy event to offer free dental care to uninsured patients in need, things will be anything but hushed.

Surrounded by towers of boxes full of donated toothpaste and refreshments, CCRI Dental Health Department Chairwoman Kathleen Gazzola was joined by Professor Pamela Wood and Associate Professor Francine Luizzi-Bench to talk about the monumental effort that goes into preparing for the occasion.

The Rhode Island Oral Health Foundation, which runs the two-day event, set a goal to serve 1,000 patients this year; last year the clinic provided 929 patients with more than $527,000 in free dental care. Numerous sponsors and donors are involved in the event, said Gazzola. Delta Dental is the premier financial sponsor while CCRI is the premier in-kind sponsor, offering its state-of-the-art dental clinic and much of the manpower.

"The college has been very supportive of using the space for the event, and we're the largest dental clinic in the state," said Gazzola.

Libby Swan, executive director of the Rhode Island Oral Health Foundation, said more than 385 medical and dental professionals, 228 community members, 11 community agency partners and 45 community agency employee volunteers are involved in making the event happen. The advertising firm Lamar donated 17 billboards to getting the word out about the clinic.

While the weekend itself represents hundreds of man hours from the faculty and staff of the Dental Health Department, the larger CCRI community as well as community volunteers, local dentists, hygienists and assistants, the time spent on preparing for the clinic is considerable.

Wood estimated that as of the Tuesday before the clinic, 100 student hours and 100 faculty and staff hours had been dedicated to various tasks stretching back to March, when the ordering and inventory process begins.

On Friday, Wood said that approximately 50 people will work all day to transform the first floor of the Flanagan Campus into a sprawling retrofitted dental clinic. Classrooms will become patient holding rooms and exam rooms.

"The Physical Plant staff will be covering entire classrooms with plastic. The janitorial staff is amazing. We have a 30-yard Dumpster outside dedicated for waste," said Gazzola.

A patient reacts to her new smile.And then there's the sheer volume of supplies needed to make the services, which range from screenings, partial denture fittings, X-rays, fillings, extractions, pediatric dentistry, fluoride treatment and more, possible. In addition to the items suppliers donated for patient goodie bags – floss, educational literature, toothpaste – there are miles of gauze and disposables to contend with.

Liuzzi-Bench alluded to the considerable spreadsheet that Wood employs to inventory, order and organize all of the supplies. While CCRI's budget for supplies for the clinic is $8,000, many of the supplies are donated. "We use thousands of gloves during the event, so many that they are delivered on palettes in trucks from our dental supplier," Wood said.

And then there are the instruments. Approximately 2,000 instruments worth more than $50,000 are in rotation among the clinic's 24 chairs. It's Liuzzi-Bench's job to oversee the sterilization of these instruments and making sure they are not only seamlessly turned over for reuse hundreds of times over the course of the clinic, but that this is done safely and in conjunction with Centers for Disease Control guidelines for infection control, meaning that the instruments are sterilized in autoclaves and repackaged. She estimated that each of the clinic's chairs would be turned over every 30 minutes for each day's 12-hour shift. "I call it the heartbeat of the mission," she said.

Wood explained that each year is a learning experience, and this year, it would be tweaks to efficiency and flow that would help the event reach its goal of serving even more patients. "Turnover engineers" will help speed up the process of getting each station ready for the next patient, while a floating coordinator the day of will help facilitate smooth transitions for patients and staff and addressing deficiencies and needs as they come up.

CCRI Dental Hygiene Clinic Manager Lynn McShane will oversee patient registration and exit interviews, gathering vital data not only for patient care, but for future funding of the clinic as well.

Gazzola said that in addition to valuable support given by the Physical Plant, janitorial and Campus Police staff, the Information Technology Department also will volunteer its services in the form of on-site coordination by Technical Support Specialist II Patricia Lambrou to help troubleshoot as well as bridge the compatibility gap between CCRI's services and the records software the clinic uses.

A patient reacts to his new smile.Although arranging the complicated ballet of services clearly must be top of mind when pulling off such an event, it's not just the staff side that Gazzola and company were concerned about. It's about the patients, first and foremost, some of whom will have lined up in front of the building the afternoon before the event and camped out overnight to take advantage of services that might otherwise be forever out of reach.

"We're changing the patient flow relative to patient comfort. There is a significant wait time. Instead of moving the patients out of the holding rooms we have, we're leaving them in the comfort of air conditioning with television instead of in the corridor outside on folding chairs," she said. "We want them to have a very nice experience. The main mission is to get people out of pain. A lot of these individuals have been suffering for a period of time."

During the clinic, donated meals and snacks will be available to volunteers and patients throughout the day courtesy of We Share Hope, and lunches for every patient will be provided by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Rhode Island and distributed throughout the waiting areas and cafeteria on both days.

"We always have food available, especially because some patients don't have enough to eat. Some patients come with babies and can't afford diapers," Gazzola said. "But everyone's needs are different. People come for all different reasons."

While some patients may be coming for an extra cleaning or because they need dental care not covered by their insurance plan, others come for necessary oral surgery procedures, for pediatric dental care for their children or for prosthetics that they otherwise couldn't afford.

A patient reacts to his new smile.Gazzola said that one of the most heart-wrenching things for her was knowing that people who can't afford dental care often can't greet the world with a smile, and that might stand in the way of their being able to secure a better job and a better life. Precision Craft, a local laboratory, donates all prosthetics, working overnight to get them ready for the second day of the clinic. "On Sunday when the partial dentures are delivered and people's smiles are transformed, the patients are in tears they're so happy," said Wood.

Doors open at 6 a.m. on Saturday, May 31, and Sunday, June 1. Patients are seen on a first-come, first-served basis until capacity is reached in the clinic. More information about the clinic and services provided is available online.

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Last Updated: 5/23/17