Fresh smiles for free medical care at pop-up clinic

Laura

NEWPORT NEWS — Despite a sleepless night in their car, Vickie and Vanessa Pratt wore bright smiles along with their perfectly manicured nails at 6:30 a.m. The 64-year-old identical twins arrived at 11 p.m. Friday to wait for a free healthcare clinic provided by Remote Area Medical.

The medical nonprofit holds about 60 clinics a year around the country, but only goes where it’s invited, organizers said. For this event, it was hosted by the Tidewater Adventist Community, which provided all the medical personnel and volunteers, at the Peninsula Seventh Day Adventist Spanish Church.

By 6 a.m., when registration began, 14 cars had arrived, and dozens more showed up as intake, triage and exams churned into gear. Organizers expected to provide dental, vision and medical care for hundreds at the free clinic, which requires no insurance or identification, on Saturday and Sunday.

The Pratts’ arrival from Hampton put them first in line for much required dental care. Vanessa had a sore tooth in need of pulling for months. Vickie’s case was simpler, yet has dragged on much longer; she’s been trying to get a cleaning for more than six years.

“I’ve called every dentist in town,” she said. “They say they have no openings.”

The problem was insurance. Vickie — who worked as a pipe cutter at Newport News Shipyard before a full shoulder replacement and four shoulder surgeries put her out of work — needed to find a way to get free care or a plan that would let her manage to pay out of pocket.

She also takes care of her sister, who is disabled; they’ve never married or even lived apart. Vanessa is eight minutes older, and Vickie has been the family caregiver all her life — she now takes care of them both.

Dental services typically make up 60% of the care provided by Remote Area Medical clinics, according to Chris Cannon, media relations coordinator for the nonprofit. The most common needs are cleanings, fillings and extractions of damaged teeth.

“The goal is not only to alleviate pain but to provide for follow-up care,” said Dr. Elias Llerandi, a dentist, co-chair of the Tidewater Adventist Community and a driving force behind the clinic.

He was particularly excited about the presence of a periodontist and an oral surgeon, rare at free clinics, and about bone graft and membrane material donated by ZimVie, a surgical manufacturing company. The material makes it much easier to fit a prosthetic tooth, but it’s very unusual to be available at a pop-up, he said.

Llerandi was everywhere Saturday: running across the parking lot with a wheelchair after a woman had a seizure and fell, cutting her head; charming a volunteer at a resource table even as he had to kick her outside to make room for COVID vaccines; and explaining to Braylen and Judah Hill, ages 5 and 3, how to use the light-up toothbrushes he was handing out.

The Hill brothers were there with their mother, Nayelis Hill. As a young, single mom, she ensures they get their primary medical care, but never goes to the doctor herself  —  expense and transportation difficulties make anything more than basic care difficult.

The boys had never been to a dentist. The three arrived at 3 a.m., thanks to a favor from a friend.

“Growing up, we didn’t really go to the doctor,” said Hill, 21. After working at a daycare center, Hill is now unemployed due to a lack of transportation, which also makes it difficult to seek preventive medicine.

When she heard about the clinic, it sounded like a way to start to break the pattern and reinforce to her sons the importance of health care.

By 9:30, Jesus DeLeon, who arrived with daughter Juana Ramos at 2 a.m., was waiting for his primary care checkup with a bit of gauze poking out the left side of his mouth.

He grinned widely and gave a thumbs up; he’d already been through the dental line to have a tooth pulled. The construction worker, who’s lived in the Hampton area for over 20 years, has been putting it off for years due to the cost: $300.

Seeing patients smile like that — even after sometimes painful procedures that people normally dread — is what lets Dr. Brad Sands, the clinical coordinator, know he’s in the right place.

After more than 10 years in emergency medicine, Sands was getting a little jaded by frustrations such as barriers to care. He’s now been with the medical nonprofit for about a year.

“Being able to see patients come in, you can see they’re in pain,” he said.

But like DeLeon, by the time they leave, they’re glowing.

The clinic at Peninsula Seventh Day Adventist Spanish Church will remain open Saturday until at least 6 p.m., or as long as providers are available. It will open again at 6 a.m. Sunday and run until about noon. Services available at the free clinic include dental cleanings, dental fillings, dental extractions, dental X-rays, eye exams, eye health exams, eyeglass prescriptions, eyeglasses made on-site, women’s health exams and general medical exams. Spanish language available. No ID is required. 

For more information, to donate or to volunteer, visit www.ramusa.org or call 865-579-1530. Patients may also visit the Facebook event for this clinic at https://fb.me/e/Fiqpd2T6.

Katrina Dix, 757-222-5155, [email protected]

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