Inside Arena, Dentists and Hygienists Serve a Mission of Mercy

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Normally, it’s the Maryland Terrapins who pack the Xfinity Arena at the University of Maryland, College Park. But on Friday, it was hundreds of dentists and hygienists and their patients who filled the arena’s floor.

The “Mission of Mercy” lined up hundreds of volunteers who would see nearly a thousand patients before the end of the day. The University of Maryland, Catholic Charities and the Maryland State Dental Association took part in the effort.

In 2007, the death of 12-year-old Deamonte Driver from an untreated dental condition spotlighted how Maryland families lack access to dental care. While access to child care has expanded in the state, many adults still go without dental care.

Missing teeth, gum disease and rotting teeth were just some of the conditions Dr. Chris Liang said he’d seen at the daylong clinic. It was his fifth year taking part in the clinic.

“There’s no judgment here” he said, emphasizing that the clinic is about restoring oral health.

Dental care isn’t just cosmetic, Liang said.

“Some of the bacteria in your mouth can affect your heart health. There’s a whole lot of things that start in the mouth.”

Liang — whose colleagues often work in developing nations — said that due to a similar lack of dental care access here, he’s prioritized helping patients in his own backyard.

While the pace of the work appears hectic, and the workspace is tight, Liang enjoys coming back year after year to offer dental care (and, in some cases, intense pain relief) to patients.

“You get to know somebody pretty quickly if they’re sitting next to you, or they’re helping you out for the first time,” Liang said. “You make some pretty good friends here, and you come back year after year to see the same people.”

Star Jackson of D.C. coordinated the dental assistants. She’d been at work since 5 a.m.

“Getting the crowd hyped, putting out supplies, sterilizing instruments. We’ve been partying in here,” she said, grinning.

Her patients had not visited dentists regularly — sometimes going years without treatment — because they lack insurance.

While Jackson operated with efficiency, turning apparent chaos into a cluster of well-operating medical teams, she also showed caring compassion.

“They’re people that just can’t afford treatment, people that fell on hard times”, she said.

Knowing that no one enjoys visiting the dentist, Jackson was asked how she sets patients at ease when they’re being seen on the floor of an arena, elbow-to-elbow with the next patient and dental team.

“We want to give to them, and that just kind of makes them comfortable enough to trust people they’ve never seen before,” she said.

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