COOS BAY, Ore. (AP) — Once another of his bottom teeth was pulled, Bill Rife only had two teeth that met in his mouth.
Combine that with no molars and many other teeth that are worn and broken to stubs, and Rife, 49, didn't have any trouble following the dentist's orders to eat soft foods for a few days — that's all he can eat on a normal day.
If not for the Dental Van, which provides free dental care for people, Rife, who is uninsured, would have continued to deal with the decaying tooth. He couldn't afford to see a dentist now, just as he hasn't been able to afford a dentist most of his adult life, he added.
"I figured (my) teeth were in good enough of shape to get me through," Rife said.
Putting off dental care long enough can lead to swelling, abscesses and possibly death, said Sam Scott, a local dentist who volunteered his time on a recent Friday to see patients. Bacteria doubles every half hour, Scott said. That means a mouth could be fine one day and then swollen up like a softball the next. The infections spread easily to other parts of the body, and poor teeth impact diet and digestion, he said.
Local dentists, hygienists and assistants who volunteer their time at the Dental Van make sure that patients don't get to that point.
Once a month, they spend a day on the traveling van checking teeth for decay, putting in fillings and extracting teeth that are beyond repair. On a typical visit, volunteers see as many as 30 people in the morning for extractions, and about eight in the afternoon for fillings.
'It's a total success. We have clients who are so grateful," said Kimberley Rollins, Oregon Coast Community Action's health service manager for federal benefits. The organization finds ways to foot the bill for the dental van. But the services aren't entirely free; dollars are short, and help is needed, Rollins said.
Having the van saves the community money in the long run — and is well-worth the $700 to $800 it costs per visit, she said. The van keeps the people from using the emergency room for dental care. One person's base fee for walking through the emergency room doors is the same as full day of the Dental Van for dozens of people, she added.
Many times, when the clients call, 'They're in such pain they can't work," Rollins said.
If they can't work, they can't keep jobs, which ultimately hurts the economy and taxpayers, she said.
The need is great, and requests come in daily, with three people calling to ask about the van Friday morning alone, she said.
Applicants go through a lengthy progress, which includes questions meant to determine whether the recipients will take care of themselves in the future.
Many of the people who apply don't know how to take care of their teeth before they are seen on the van, Rollins said.
"They don't know that, that's an education issue," she said.
"We can empower these people to do better."
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.