Mission of Mercy Changes Lives One Dental Procedure At A Time

By Tania Soussan

The last time Dr. Christopher Morgan volunteered at a Mission of Mercy dental clinic, his first patient of the day was a Navajo Nation teenager who had lost eight front teeth after being hit by a drunken driver. The boy’s family wasn’t able to afford the dental work to replace his teeth, so he had taken to wearing a mask.

On that fall 2022 day in Farmington, Morgan and his team made impressions of the boy’s mouth and crafted him “flipper teeth,” a partial denture that can be long-lasting but that’s not intended as a permanent solution.

“Around 10 or 11 in morning, he had teeth for the first time in two years,” Morgan recalled. “The kid could finally go to school and smile at his friends.”

The New Mexico Mission of Mercy is a free two-day clinic providing high-quality dental and medical services to people who cannot access or afford dental care. This event is a program of the New Mexico Dental Association Foundation and operated completely by volunteers with donated supplies and other necessities. Over the past 13 years, clinics in Las Cruces, Albuquerque, Farmington and Rio Rancho have given $9 million in free treatment to 11,000 patients.

The next event is scheduled for April 26 and 27 at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center. About 100 dentists will give their time, and dental students will provide patient education. Organizers also are looking for about 800 community volunteers to help with set-up, tear-down, and check-in, to escort patients, act as translators, help with security and parking, and serve food to the other volunteers, Morgan said. Volunteers serve in four, six-hour shifts and should sign up by April 9. No special skills are required, but only adults are allowed within the clinical areas; there are also roles for those under 18. For more information about the clinic and to sign up to volunteer, go to nmdentalassociationfoundation.org and click on Events.

Morgan, who is co-chair of the event and owner of Morgan Dentistry in Santa Fe, hopes to serve 1,500 patients and provide $1 million worth of free treatment. The last event in Santa Fe, held in 2016, served 1,200 patients.

“We do 30 complete dentures. We make probably 100 temporary flippers. If we pull a front tooth, we replace the front tooth,” Morgan said, adding that the dentists also do lots of extractions, root canals, crowns, fillings and cleanings.

This year, physicians will be on hand for medical evaluations when necessary and to help control blood pressure, diabetes and other conditions for medically compromised people who need dental work.

“As a dentist I have a private practice. I rely upon my community, my workforce, my patients. It’s pretty easy for me to give back something,” Morgan said. “It’s my chance to help.”

While Morgan focuses on raising the nearly $300,000 in tax-deductible donations and in-kind contributions needed to cover expenses for dental equipment and supplies, medications, facility rental and food, co-chair Kelley Hollingsworth Ryals is handling the logistics.

“It’s a big undertaking, but it’s worth it,” she said, adding that New Mexico has one of highest Medicaid rates in country and is one of most underserved states for dental care.

Although most patients are in their 50s or older, there will be a large pediatric dentistry area. Free childcare will be available so that parents and other caregivers can be treated.

Some patients wait for the clinic to roll around every 18 to 24 months for their dental work. Some have been in pain for years. Others have major infections and don’t even know it or abscesses that could lead to a heart attack or stroke if left untreated, Ryals said.

Although the line moves quickly, some patients start queuing on Thursday night to get in early Friday morning because the clinic is first-come, first-served. One person took an eight-hour bus ride from Santa Rosa to get to the Farmington clinic, Ryals said.

She also has seen homeless children and a police officer who had dental insurance but still couldn’t afford to pay his part of the care he needed.

“These are our normal day-to-day blue-collar families,” she said. “People who literally work their tails off five, six days a week, have a family, don’t qualify for Medicaid. … That’s who the event is geared toward — people who don’t think there’s any other solution.

“We don’t ask for any money. … We don’t want to know where you come from. We’re just here to help with open arms.”

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