The top reason for putting off dental treatment isn’t fear of the needle, pliers or drill. It’s the fear of the cost, according to the online Everyday Health website article, “The Top 7 Reasons We Avoid the Dentist.”
On one day of the year, Valentine’s Day, Oak Park Dental makes a trip to the dentist less of a pain in the pocketbook. That’s when they offer free cleanings, extractions and fillings — and they’ve been doing it now for the past 20 years.
“I remember hearing about a group planning a mission trip to some foreign country to perform dental treatment,” said Dr. Harry Castle, owner of Oak Park and Acadian Dental. “I thought it was a worthwhile endeavor, but also that it is a service much-needed right here in Lake Charles. This is my mission field, and I don’t have to pack a bunch of gear and equipment or travel far to serve.”
He’s joined by extra staff, volunteers and two other dentists, Dr. Karlnelius Duhon and Dr. Kyle Ferro.
With the price tag for a simple extraction starting at over $200 — that’s not including anesthesia — it’s no wonder men and women line up before dawn.
Crystal Lewis got there at 7 p.m. the night before, camped in her car and lined up early behind another all-night vehicle camper who pulled in after he’d watched the Super Bowl. Temps dipped into the low 30s overnight and early Valentine’s Day morning. Doors opened a few minutes before 8 a.m. Some of the patients who warmed- and caffeinated-up starting in the wee hours of the morning were having problems advancing to treatment because of high blood pressure readings.
“If you have high blood pressure, we can only do cleanings,” one of the staff members explained.
Local anesthesia affects blood pressure.
“The last time I went to the dentist I was living in Texas and two extractions cost me $500,” Lewis said. “When I broke a tooth earlier this year, I remembered this would be happening soon. No way could I afford that kind of money right now.”
Sadly, Lewis’ tooth may not be pulled if the extraction isn’t considered simple enough to do in the office that day. No free work is done during Feb. 14 at Oak Park Dental that requires lab work, sutures or multi-visits to complete.
“We do the best we can to help everyone leave better than they came, but the goal is to help as many people as possible today, and we wouldn’t be able to help as many people if we use the time to perform more complicated procedures,” Castle said.
Not only is the cost of dental care expensive — a single person who makes $12 an hour would spend more than half his weekly paycheck for an extraction — but also few, if any, local dentists accept the Medicaid equivalent of dental insurance. The Southwest Louisiana Center for Health Services offers medical, gynecological, podiatrist and dental services, and does accept Medicaid. Patients can also pay for work on a sliding scale based on income. However, new patients can’t see a dentist there until April and new patients requesting treatment will need to call within a certain window. Calcasieu Dental Care offers treatment for the working poor who have no insurance.
Oak Park Dental serves an average of 175 people during their Valentine’s Day free dental event. The patients aren’t the only ones who leave with smiles, forgetting the long night bundled up in their vehicle.
“I look forward to it,” said Dental Hygienist Melanie LaFleur. “At the end of the day I’ll be exhausted. We’ll all be exhausted, but it’s so rewarding even though we’re tired. The people are so happy, so appreciative and we get a lot of Valentine’s Day hugs to keep us going.”