A Weekend Mission of Mercy in Pittsburgh
More than a thousand people come to PPG Paints Arena once a year for free dental care, thanks to an ambitious, all-volunteer effort.
photos BY renee rosensteel
Late one night last summer, crowds gathered outside PPG Paints Arena. While it’s not unusual to see a queue forming at the facility’s gates, these visitors weren’t waiting for tickets to go on sale, or trying to get the best spot among the crowds at a concert.
They had come to see a dentist. And they were prepared to wait all night.
The first Mission of Mercy Pittsburgh dental clinic, held in July 2017, gave 885 patients no-cost consultation and treatment, right on the arena floor. The second event, which took place in July, drew even more than the previous year; more than 1,000 patients were treated by 133 volunteer dentists.
The American Dental Association estimates that more than 20 percent of adults and 10 percent of children have not seen a dentist in several years. The most common reason cited is the expense; due to a lack of insurance or inability to pay copays and other out-of-pocket costs, many adults forego dental care altogether. At the first Mission of Mercy event, more than 75 percent of those treated cited costs or insurance issues as the reason for their attendance.
Dr. Daniel Pituch, the immediate past president of medical staff at UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside and co-founder of Face2Face Healing, knows how urgent dental care can become. “Just at UPMC Presbyterian and Shadyside there are over 3,000 visits a year for dental pain or problems,” he says. “So for a patient to get out of bed and go through the trouble to go to an emergency room to get help, they’re in trouble.”
Emergency rooms are not equipped to perform dental procedures, so the visit will often lead to little more than pain medications and antibiotics — making events like Mission of Mercy a rare opportunity for those without insurance to receive care.
Mission of Mercy events are held in cities across the country but had not been brought to Pittsburgh until nonprofit group Face2Face Healing, which Pituch co-founded with former patient Karen Scuilli, introduced them last year. “Dentists get together and they provide free dental care to the community,” he says of the events. “They’re supported with money donated to do this work.” All dentists at the Mission of Mercy event (and more than 1,200 additional volunteers) donate their services.
On arrival, patients are first medically evaluated to ensure they’re healthy enough to receive dental care; if necessary, Mission of Mercy staff will arrange transportation to a hospital for urgent attention. After that evaluation, they’ll receive radiographs and be evaluated by dentists who will determine their three most pressing needs. Most, if not all, procedures can and will be done for free, on the spot: fillings, root canals, extractions, cleanings and even prescriptions (a team of pharmacists are on site, with medications donated by UPMC).
“We’re not cutting any corners and really delivering the highest level of care possible,” Pituch says. “Whatever they need they can get it then and there.”
Despite the number of treatments completed through the Mission of Mercy weekend — which is first-come, first-serve, hence the long lines in the hours before the event — the need for low-cost care is a year-round problem. Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh runs a free clinic for qualified patients; the wait for appointments, though, can stretch for months, making events such as Mission of Mercy necessary to cut down on demand.
“The need for dentistry for people who have low income and no insurance is huge,” says Dr. Mark Prybyl, Catholic Charities’ dental director. “Anything like the Mission of Mercy that [serves as] a safety valve is great.”
For many problems, a wait of several months (if not more) is not an option. That urgency is what drives people to emergency rooms, seeking care they won’t be able to receive — and brings patients to line up overnight outside PPG Paints Arena.
“There are people who are in desperate need of this care,” Pituch says. “And they’ll do whatever they need to do to make sure they get it.”