Pitt dentist wearing blue and gold Pitt cap working on patient
Features & Articles

Mission of Mercy dental clinic brought smiles to hundreds in the Pittsburgh region

  • Health and Wellness
  • Community Impact
  • School of Dental Medicine

By 6 a.m. Friday, people were lined up around the block to get into the David Lawrence Convention Center for a free dental clinic supported in part by hundreds of Pitt volunteers.  

“I find it some of the most important work that our faculty, staff and students do each year because it represents the most important community impact that we can have — caring for patients in need,” said University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine Dean Bernard J. Costello. “We commit our resources and effort each year because it is a big part of our mission.”

Mission of Mercy Pittsburgh is a free, two-day dental clinic offered each year by A Call to Care, Inc., although last year COVID-19 prevented it from being held.

This year’s came at a time of great need due to patients putting off care as a result of the financial strain of lost jobs and insurance due to the pandemic. COVID-19 had another impact, too: “There was a period where there was literally no dentistry happening,” said School of Dental Medicine Associate Dean Marnie Oakley. “That has compounded the need this year.”

On display at the convention center on Friday was a highly choreographed dental dance. Soundtracked by a chorus of dental tools, patients were assessed and X-rayed while dozens of others got cleanings, fillings, root canals or extractions (sometimes all of the above). Lines of scrub-clad volunteers, the majority sporting blue-and-gold Pitt surgical caps, leaned over their patients or worked up a sweat power walking from one station to another.

It was clear this effort had a profound effect on patients, who held students’ hands, cried out of happiness and even hugged their dentists on their way out.

“This is a rare opportunity, and people have really sacrificed a lot to get here and take advantage of it,” said fourth-year student volunteer Tim Petty. “You just see a lot of need, and it’s nice to be able to fulfill that.” More than 90% of the Pitt Dental Medicine fourth-year class volunteered for the clinic, with 190 pre-doctoral students signed up, said School of Dental Medicine Interim Assistant Dean Sarah Grafton. That’s not counting graduate residents or alumni who volunteered as practicing dentists.

Faculty oversaw students, and fourth-year students were paired with third years. Students start working with patients in their first year in dental school, but at this clinic they have just one goal: provide quality care, quickly. “Our priority here is to get as much work done as we can” Petty said. “It’s not like the training wheels are off, but maybe they’re loosened.” Getting students involved means the school can treat far more patients, and it benefits the students, too, Oakley said. “It should be something that sticks with our students for a lifetime,” she said. “It’s a learning experience of what it’s like to participate in a clinic like this, and it’s what the community really needs.”

In addition to offering prompt, free and much-needed care, the event serves to make members of the community aware of the affordable services Pitt Dental Medicine offers year-round, she said.

Hundreds of patients came from around the region for the opportunity to access free dental care, and some came from even farther away: student volunteer Regina Munsch (ENGR ’20) said that one of her patients had driven in from Philadelphia. In 2019, the clinic served 1,348 patients.

Some received thousands of dollars worth of care faster than would be possible in private practice. Grafton cited a particular kind of denture that would usually require a follow-up visit weeks after an initial appointment. But at this clinic, “lab techs will stay here really late tonight and process everything,” she said. “Then patients will come back tomorrow and get them inserted.”

Patients walk away better-informed, in less pain, and maybe even a little more self-assured.

“In this world of masks, we’re not really used to seeing smiles,” Munsch said. “But at the end of the day you go home you take your mask off. And when you’re looking in the mirror and smiling at yourself, the amount of confidence that gives is huge.”

To learn more about the dental services offered by the University of Pittsburgh, visit Pitt Dental Medicine.


— Patrick Monahan