Essay: A marathon worth a thousand smiles at the West Slope COMOM dental clinic
The last time I was up and ready to go at 4 a.m. was probably for the purpose of making the shuttle to the starting line for some race I had trained up to run.
So, when the alarm went off at that ungodly hour Friday morning, my first thought was, ‘OK, am I ready for this?’
Several hours later, I honestly felt a little like I had run a marathon.
My assignment for the 2019 Western Slope Colorado Mission of Mercy free dental clinic at Glenwood Springs High School was to be a patient escort.
The job was pretty simple: Escort people, along with their all-important paperwork, to get a filling or a crown, have their teeth cleaned, a tooth pulled, get fitted for dentures or a false tooth — whatever was determined they needed through the screening process.
The impact was lasting, as hundreds of men and women, whole families, young, old and just all walks of humanity filed through.
After clinic Site Chair Sherrie Setterberg approached our Carbondale Rotary Club seeking volunteers a few weeks back, I engaged my “Service Above Self” gear and signed up for what I figured would be a two- or three-hour shift before I headed into work.
Upon arrival, I soon realized the gravity of what I had joined, and the immense volunteer effort it takes to pull off this free, annual statewide dental clinic.
Lined up on one side of the building was about 1,000 people, many of whom had traveled hundreds of miles to spend the night on the sidewalk waiting for the doors to open so they could get their teeth fixed.
On the other side of the building was another thousand or so people checking in alphabetically — ready, willing and able to help those on the other side get that important dental procedure.
Our patient escort coordinators for the day were Cindy Richards and Jim Theiss, both longtime veterans of COMOM clinics. Each has a story to tell about what it is that keeps them coming back.
Theiss wears eight “happy face stars” on his name badge, indicating the eight COMOM events he’s volunteered to help with after his dental hygienist wife recruited him.
His very first year, a young woman, probably in her late teens, came up to him literally crying.
She’d had a front tooth extracted, but had been told they didn’t have time to make a flapper replacement for her.
“I grabbed the first dentist I saw and asked, ‘Can you help?’ She said, ‘Absolutely,’” Theiss recalled.
“The next day that young woman found me so she could show me her smile. I’ve been sold ever since,” he said.
Richards got involved in a similar manner when her daughter, who’s also a dental hygienist, began helping at the COMOM clinics with her dental office team.
“After about the third year I asked her if there’s anything a non-dental person could do to help, and she said ‘sure!’” Richards said.
She handled volunteer registration for a bit, and then switched to helping with patient escorts; landing the job as patient escort lead for this year.
“I just love the interaction with the patients, talking to them and just getting to know them in that short time. It’s a very rewarding thing to do,” Richards said.
1,238 — Number of preregistered volunteers for the 2019 West Slope COMOM dental clinic in Glenwood Springs; though the final number ended up closer to 1,300.
822 — Number of patients through the door on the first day of the two-day free dental clinic on Friday. By the end of Saturday, that number had grown to approximately 1,500 people served.
204 — Number of dentists who volunteered at the clinic.
150 — Approximate number of dental hygienists on hand for the weekend.
144 — Number of dental chairs used.
Setterberg had helped with a similar American Dental Association clinic in New Orleans before hooking up with COMOM.
After volunteering last year, she and her husband, longtime Glenwood Springs dentist Dr. Jim Setterberg, heard the organization was considering having one of its clinics on the Western Slope.
“We’ve known that the need exists here in the Roaring Fork Valley, so we agreed to be site chairs and have it here in Glenwood,” Sherrie Setterberg said.
Over the past several months, she worked to get the word out all across the Western Slope. Friday’s response was proof that people will make the pilgrimage, regardless of how many miles to the clinic location.
“I left here at 7 last night (Thursday), and people were already lined up, and this morning the line was very long,” she said.
Beyond the more than 1,230 volunteers who were pre-registered to help at the Glenwood dental clinic, scores more showed up on Friday morning to sign up on the spot, Setterberg said.
“It definitely demonstrates the community spirit that we have in our valley,” she said.
Among them was Nadia Carbajal, a junior at GSHS who heard about the clinic through her National Honor Society connections and decided to be a volunteer.
“It’s all about helping families who may not have the chance to afford dental care,” Carbajal said. “It’s great that we can help a large community of people with their needs and health, because that’s what’s important.”
Many volunteers travel every year to wherever the clinic is being held. They’ve come to call themselves “COMOMoholics.”
Dan Hemphill, a member of the Fort Collins Kiwanis Club, proudly wears 11 happy face stars on his badge.
“For my first one I directed traffic for a couple of hours, but once I saw how the operation went, I got hooked … once you do one or two of these things, you’ve got a whole new family.”
Paul Smartt of Colorado Springs has helped at seven COMOM clinics. He came to his first one in Pueblo as a patient.
He was at the end of a line of some 2,000 people waiting to get in when his brother came by and said he’d volunteered to help out.
“I said, ‘I’m not standing in this line then, I guess I’m a volunteer, too,’” Smartt recalled.
He not only volunteered – he got his teeth fixed, and he’s been back nearly every year to both volunteer and get his annual dental work done.
COMOM Executive Director Pam Dinkfelt said the volunteer effort is what makes the clinic successful. The positive impact on people’s lives is priceless, she said.
“We give people smiles, so they can go look for jobs, or be successful in school, whatever …,” she said.
The COMOM Western Slope dental clinic continues from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at GSHS.
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