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Gift makes dental care possible for hard-luck patients

By Allyson Bird
Office of Development and Alumni Affairs

When eating became painful, Gary Martin made the first trip from his home in Columbia to MUSC’s College of Dental Medicine.

That initial appointment set in motion a plan to treat the periodontal disease that had begun to affect his life more and more, with the risk of heart problems growing over time. Martin needed to have all his teeth extracted and replaced with dentures.

Shortly before his scheduled surgery, some unexpected bills left him in a bind; he no longer could afford the procedure. “I just didn’t think I could swing it,” he said.

He canceled his next appointment, explaining the situation over the phone. A few weeks later, he received a surprise call from Dr. Mark Barry, Associate Dean for Clinical Affairs at the College of Dental Medicine. Several donors had provided funding for a new financial aid program, and Dr. Barry wanted to use their gift for Martin’s surgery.

“I was ecstatic that I could get everything done,” Martin said. “My primary concern was that other health problems could arise if I didn’t.”

Dr. Barry came up with the idea for this program after attending a dental conference in California. MUSC’s clinic not only benefits hard-luck patients but students who get the experience of treating those patients from their initial visits, through procedures and onto follow-up appointments. Dr. Barry introduced the idea of Care Access Responsibility Excellence, or the CARE Fund, at this year’s S.C. Dental Association meeting. 

“There aren’t a whole lot of safety nets in this state,” Dr. Barry said. “Adults are really out in the cold if they cannot afford care. If we can help make it a little better, we want to do that.”

Dr. Mark Barry works with fourth-year dental student Chris Filler as he prepares for a patient who will receive treatment through the CARE Fund at the MUSC College of Dental Medicine.

Each year the College of Dental Medicine faces $50,000 in uncollected expenses from patients who cannot afford the treatment they receive. The CARE Fund would offset that burden and help out patients, such as Martin, who intended to pay but then faced unforeseen financial setbacks.

Dr. Barry hopes to support at least one case each year. A College of Dental Medicine alumnus and his wife pledged $10,000 toward the program, and the Alliance to the S.C. Dental Association, a group comprised of association members’ wives, pledged another $20,000 with the intention of raising even more money for the cause.

Dr. Lynn Wallace, a Sumter dentist and graduate of College of Dental Medicine, knows firsthand how much financial assistance means to patients. He and his wife, Connie, offered $10,000 to get the CARE Fund started.

“What they are trying to do is not turn indigent patients away because of money issues,” Dr. Wallace said. “It’s a worthwhile use of charitable funds to do something like that. We’re not wealthy, but we’ve been successful, and we wanted to give back.”

Sherry Fair, whose husband and daughter both work as dentists, said she and other members of the Alliance to the S.C. Dental Association know their contribution helps not only patients but students. “Our goal is to help them learn as much as they can before they graduate,” she said. “These are people who are going to take the skills back to the community. This fund is providing the opportunity for them to learn hands-on. “

Fair said that she sees patients come into her husband’s office in need of more work than they can afford. She hopes the CARE Fund will help change the outcome for some of those people.

“We helped to establish the endowment so that we have something that lasts beyond us,” Fair said. “If you can do something that can outlast you, it’s the greatest gift you can make.”

In Martin’s case, the CARE Fund paid for months of treatment under the care of fourth-year dental student Chris Filler. Filler took Martin’s X-rays and impressions, developed a treatment plan and fitted him for dentures. 

Filler’s instructor, Dr. Barry, hopes Martin marks only the first of years of patients yet to come – but the program will rely on donations to continue. “Without funding, I can’t pull a Gary Martin,” Dr. Barry said. “It depends on funding.”