Thomas Johnson never forgot that his front tooth was missing since the age of 11 — especially at job interviews.
“Every time I go I think in my head, ‘They’re not going to want anybody that has a missing tooth,’ ” he said.
But at a free Baton Rouge dental clinic that was held Friday and Saturday, Johnson, 29, had a replacement tooth fitted and had four decayed teeth removed.
“It gives me more confidence,” Johnson said after the replacement was put in. “I’m willing to talk to anybody now.”
Beginning at 4 a.m. and even earlier on Saturday, hundreds of Baton Rouge area residents began lining up at the Armed Forces Reserve Center on Innovation Park Drive for a variety of dental procedures — fillings, tooth extractions and root canals.
The sprawling center held room after room teeming with patients wading through every step of the process. There was a room for X-rays, a room for triage, a room for numbing, and a tent outside where the Joel Jones 3M Choir performed for free as dozens more waited to get inside.
The smaller rooms all led up to a massive space with a high ceiling that bustled with hundreds of dentists in scrubs, assistants who are dentists-in-training and dozens of patients lying back in rows of chairs. The floor was buzzing with the hum of three commercial-sized generators for all the plastic-sheathed equipment, two large air compressors and the whir of countless tools.
By day’s end, close to 800 patients were expected to pass through the room, as dentists pulled about as many teeth, said Annette Droddy, the Assistant Executive Director for the Louisiana Dental Association, whose charity wing runs the clinic.
Roughly the same figures were reported for Friday.
“I make a living getting people out of pain,” said Denis Simon, a Baton Rouge root canal specialist and the clinic’s vice chairman. “This gives me an opportunity to get people out of pain who can’t afford my services. … It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve done.”
By 9 a.m., organizers had to start turning people away as the tally reached around 800 and space was running out for everyone who could be seen by the day’s end. Medicaid includes little dental coverage for adults, besides help with paying for dentures, Simon said.
And procedures at the clinic are limited to 45-minute windows — so crowns, which require more money and time, were off the table.
The dentists make use of the time they have. On Saturday, Simon noted that one patient had so many decayed teeth that 24 were pulled.
“There’s no question there’s a need,” he added. “We’re not naive to think we can solve the problem. We’re just trying to touch the people we can touch.”
Another patient was 54-year-old Karen Schaffer, who said she had been awakened by her own tooth pain at 2 a.m. on a fairly regular basis. By the weekend’s end she’d had two teeth pulled, one fake tooth fitted and her teeth cleaned.
“I feel much better with my mouth clean and teeth put in,” Schaffer said. She added of the dentists, “They didn’t act like they were scared to touch you.”
William Reinhardt had also experienced sporadic pain, which he hopes will be over now that he got two teeth pulled on Saturday.
“I don’t have to worry about that pain coming back,” Reinhardt said. “It’s gone now.”
Follow Daniel Bethencourt on Twitter, @_dbethencourt.