WISE, Va. — Larry Bays has seen his share of hard times, but on this day he was blessed.
The 71-year-old goat farmer from Gate City, Va., had come to the annual free medical clinic held over the weekend here in coal country so his wife, Joyce, could have her asthma and arthritis checked.
When her doctor realized she had no teeth, he sent the couple over to a trailer operated by the Mission of Mercy dental team.
Ordinarily, dentures are one of the most coveted and hard-to-get treatments at the clinic, which is operated by Remote Area Medical to provide care to people in Appalachia who have no other options.
But in the past four years, a group of Virginia dentists has come up with a new denture-making process that lets them serve nearly 10 times as many people in the weekend clinic. Where they used to supply maybe eight sets of dentures a year to patients at the Wise event, now they can create 50 full and about 30 partial sets.
They are working through a waiting list of about 800 needy people that had piled up over the years. But when Joyce Bays showed up Friday without an appointment, they just happened to have the time to work her in.
And when they met her husband — with his “I (heart) Jesus” cap, necklace with seven flashy crosses, scraggly ponytail and hearty laugh — they decided on the spot to give him a set, too.
Larry Bays hasn’t had teeth in nearly 20 years, ever since surviving a horrific workplace accident. He was replacing the insulation on a building when the scaffolding collapsed. Falling about 18 feet, Bays was impaled on a pole. It broke his pelvis and sternum and shattered his teeth.
He got a $300 set of dentures at the time, but they didn’t fit and Bays didn’t have the money to get them replaced. So he did without.
Dental problems are the top overall complaint at the annual RAM clinic. This year, the three-day event, which wrapped up Sunday, served a total of 2,000 patients — some of whom had driven for hours to get to the makeshift facility at the Wise County Fairgrounds and slept in their cars.
The Mission of Mercy group, a team of volunteer dentists, hygienists and others, provides all dental services at the clinic. About 450 dental volunteers cared for about 1,100 patients over the weekend in Wise, performing everything from root canals to — most commonly — tooth extractions.
“When I started, we were doing dentures in the conventional way,” said Scott Miller, a dentist from Bristol, Va., who grew up in coal country and has volunteered for years. Each set of new teeth was a multistep process, with fittings and relinings and the dentures assembled by hand in a separate lab.
He and several partners set out to find a better system. They came up with a thermoplastic acrylic that holds its shape after being heated. Now they have pre-made dentures in six sizes, large to small, that they can mold to a patient’s mouth in a little over a day.
“It’s the only way we can put a dent in that list of 800 people,” he said. The partners have formed Benchmark Dentures to market their product.
In their trailer on Saturday, Bays was in the chair getting ready for the set they had made for him after taking impressions the day before.
Dental assistant Diana Fuller, who had fitted his wife’s set, seemed as excited as Bays. “They’re the lucky lottery winners,” Fuller said. She ran to get Joyce so the couple could see each other with full sets of teeth.
With his new set in place, Bays looked up with a huge smile as his wife came up beside him. The dental staff members egged them on to a big kiss. Would they go dancing tonight?
“Nope, I’m too old, son,” Bays said. “I’m gonna get some rest, milk my goats and go to bed. I been up four days — been camping in our car.”
Joyce corrected him. “I’m the one that milks ’em,” she said.
Bays beamed back at her. “You ought to see this woman wrestle sheep,” he said. “She’ll grab a 200-pound sheep and roll ’em like a little pig.”
Fuller hugged them both. Bays had a few tears in his eyes. He had earlier seen one of the volunteer doctors and gotten a chest X-ray for his persistent cough. It turned out his earlier career, installing insulation, had taken a toll. “I’m a-carrying asbestos in my lungs,” he said. Not a good diagnosis.
But for now, he was happy. “Wow,” he said, as Fuller held up a mirror for him to admire his teeth. “That looks great, girl.”