Touching Lives Through Smiles: Minnesota's First-Ever Mission of Mercy

Touching Lives Through Smiles: Minnesota's First-Ever Mission of Mercy

Bruce Bergstrom, Alejandro Aguirre, D.D.S., M.S., and Jamie Sledd, D.D.S.:
Minnesota will host its first-ever Mission of Mercy event at the Verizon Wireless Center in Mankato this August 17-18. With a targeted goal of 2,000 patient treatment encounters, the  event will provide approximately $1 million worth of free dental care in two days. Northwest Dentistry recently sat down with Mr. Bruce Bergstrom, Executive Director of the national  Mission of Mercy (MOM) foundation, for background on the national movement, and with Minnesota’s MOM lead dentists, Drs. Alejandro and Jamie Sledd, to discuss how our state’s first  event has developed and is progressing.

Dr. Christine Hermanson, left, with a delighted patient at the Wisconsin Mission of Mercy event, just one of many at MOM events across the country.

The National Movement
Bruce Bergstrom is the Executive Director of America’s Dentists Care Foundation (ACDF)/Mission of Mercy. He is a retired structural engineer and former member of the management  team of a nuclear power plant. He lives in Lebo, Kansas. 
NWD: Thank you for joining us. We understand you have a Minnesota connection.
Mr. Bergstrom: I grew up in Austin and lived in Minnesota until I was 40, when I moved to Kansas to build and then run, yes, a nuclear power plant. I am a structural engineer by profession – [laughs] so I had all the credentials in the world to run a dental foundation, right? 
NWD: Please provide us with some background about the Mission of Mercy.
Mr. Bergstrom: Our first Mission of Mercy (MOM) took place in February of 2003 in Garden City, Kansas. Since then 50 events have been held, and we are now in 15 states. It’s still  relatively new. We started as a volunteer group, and by 2008 it became apparent there were groups standing in line waiting for help, so we incorporated at that point and became  America’s Dentists Care Foundation (ADCF), and I became Executive Director. The idea actually started with Dr. Terry Dickinson in Virginia. He is a member of our board. He did the  first one in 2000, and two of our Kansas dentists, Drs. Jon Tilton and Jeff Stasch, participated there. They came back and said, “We need to do this in Kansas.” As it grew state by  state, we realized we had to do something more organized than just a bunch of volunteers, so the corporation was established — February 29, 2008.
When the dental association (our requirement) of a given state asks to do a MOM event, we send them information on how to build the needed volunteer organization; we help them,  if, for instance, they need some “deciders” to be convinced; we evaluate sites; and on the scheduled date, we show up with a semi loaded with equipment. With volunteer help, we  put it all up, then watch the dentists and dental professionals provide volunteer care. 
NWD: Tell us a bit about yourself, your background with ADCF, and how you got involved with Mission of Mercy.
Mr. Bergstrom: My wife is a dental hygienist, and she asked me after I retired to come along to the first free clinic at the fairgrounds in Garden City, Kansas. Not being a dentist, I was  asked to do “crowd control”. We arrived that morning in the dark in the midst of a ten-inch blizzard; there were three to four hundred people lined up outside, huddled in blankets, braced against this terrible wind. As I looked at the line, this little Hispanic boy, maybe five, his face swollen and in pain, broke out of the line and ran past me. His young mother  grabbed him and yanked him back in line, but I noticed he was wearing only socks. “Where,” I asked, “are your shoes?” She snapped back at me, “He has no shoes.” But he held up his  little hand and added, “Five socks, mister, five socks!” And I thought, “My gosh, in America?” On the way home, I told my wife, “I just found what I’m going to do with the rest of my  life.” Every time we go to a Mission, there is a story like that. 
NWD: I’m guessing there is no such thing as a typical MOM event. What similarities do you see among them?
Mr. Bergstrom: I like to “walk the line” in before daylight at these events, because I enjoy talking to these people and hearing their stories. Some of them may look kind of scary, but  they are almost always grateful that the dentists are providing them with a little hope. In 50 events I have never had an incident walking the line, and the line is what shows the world  the need that is out there. We realize that MOMs are not the answer; they show the enormous need that exists in our country. Many politicians have no idea about these people who  are living day to day under the radar. 
NWD: Tell us about the logistics of holding an event of this magnitude. How does it get organized, how much time is spent planning, and who pays for everything?
Mr. Bergstrom: For a Friday-Saturday event, our truck will arrive on Thursday, with the best portable equipment made to our specifications by the best dental equipment manufacturers in the world — they partner with us. We set up suction devices, water tanks, electricity, tables, patient chairs — 50-some crates are unloaded. A pre-arranged floor  plan includes registration, which primarily asks some key medical questions, but this event is free to anyone who shows up. Everyone is escorted and treated with great respect as  guests of the state dental community. They see about 1,000 patients each day. Pain abatement is our first priority. Get as many patients as possible out of pain as is possible in a  two-day setting. Following registration a brief medical history is taken, then patients go to medical/dental triage. After that they go to numbing stations, then are routed to  restorative, endo, oral surgery, X-ray, lab work, dental hygiene … Patient education is becoming a bigger part of our model as we mature as a foundation. Following treatment there is  an exit interview, and a pharmacy to fill prescriptions. We have a full range of services. The only thing we don’t do yet is full dentures, but by early next year we are looking at a new  “space age” denture that can be installed in about an hour and a half under certain patient conditions. They will treat approximately 100 patients an hour for two days, for 1,800 to  2,200 patients in total. In dollar figures, that is a million and an half dollars of free dental care in two days. 
NWD: Getting this to work at this level is incredibly impressive.
Mr. Bergstrom: It was an accident! [laughs] You have these people who really need care, and as long as you can find leaders like Dr. Aguirre and Dr. Sledd there in Minnesota, and other dental professionals to donate their time, that is the key to how large and successful an event can be. These dentists work all day long at their offices and then take two days “off” to basically stand on their heads in a MASH unit, and do dentistry for free — God bless ‘em. Our job is to make sure that in this organized chaos we are letter perfect in perfect  dental practices and protocols. We have a remarkable network of people from across the nation who we rely on for anything we need or need to know, and they are all very willing to  help. 
NWD: So who drives the truck? 
Mr. Bergstrom: One of the national carriers takes our trailers anywhere we need them to go for the lowest price they can manage, and they will store it for free if needed between  events. Before that, freight costs were a major concern as we travel across America. 
NWD: In the nine years that you have been involved with state MOM events, what were some of the more memorable experiences?
Mr. Bergstrom: I’ve seen the buses pull up and when the dentists get out, people applaud like it’s a rock band! 
NWD: What is going to happen in Minnesota, and where does this, and should this, fit into a larger question that needs awareness, understanding, and what politicians like to call  “will”?
Mr. Bergstrom: Minnesota will find, as all states have, that they are not just fixing people in pain. There is so much more that comes out of this. Dentists don’t normally operate in a  collegial environment the way physicians in a hospital do. Here they will work with other dentists, share ideas and concerns, create their own new small groups. The 1,000 lay volunteers become dental advocates. The “wow” factor, the PR — news media love to cover these events — sends a message: Look at the need. There is the educational part – the long-term issues that come with poor oral health have not been in the consciousness of these patients. We are developing education models specifically for MOM events… And we  believe the 100,000th patient treated by Mission of Mercy states since our inception in 2003 will happen in Minnesota, so keep an eye out for that! But more than anything, we are working toward the goal of having the next generation healthier than this one, and that is going to take everyone who can help working together. 

This is what two days’ worth of volunteer dental services looks like.

The Minnesota Contingent
Alejandro Aguirre, D.D.S., M.S. is Chair of the Minnesota Mission of Mercy. He is an endodontist in private practice in Plymouth, Minnesota. Email is 
Jamie Sledd, D.D.S., is Dental Chair for the Minnesota Mission of Mercy. She is a general dentist in private practice in Maple Grove, Minnesota. Email is jsledd@

NWD: How did the idea for a Minnesota MOM event get started at the MDA? Why are we doing this?
Dr. Aguirre: In 2006, I was in an ADA program called the Institute for Diversity in Leadership, and that required each of us to have a project. Mine was to videotape foreigntrained dentists as they worked to be licensed here. That was where I met Terry Dickinson, who became my mentor. The video he used was about MOM, and I thought, “This should be my  project!” But it was too big for a year’s work. Then at a MDA Board of Trustees meeting, someone brought up MOM, and I said, “I know about that.” I followed up with Bruce  Bergstrom, and the people in Wisconsin and Iowa, and from that I developed a paper for the Board. The next step was to go to a MOM event — I went to Iowa. We then drafted a resolution for the House of Delegates, which required a study — which I already had. The House approved it, and here we are. [laughs] Well, not quite. We needed someone to chair. No one wanted to. I said, “I’ll do it.” Then everyone said, “We’ll help you!” Jamie had tried to engage us in MOM when she was an officer, so I asked her to be Dental Chair. 
Dr. Sledd: It  took a lot to get the ball rolling.
NWD: How were you affected by those first MOM experiences? 
Dr. Aguirre: What I saw was, everybody has a smile, from the volunteers to the dentists to the patients. Everyone is a person; patients are addressed by name. Yes, we address  dental pain and infection, but as importantly, that missing tooth (or teeth) that is undermining someone’s self-esteem. That’s very big, whether looking for a job, getting up the  courage to ask out someone you like, hoping to be in school … We saw a patient in Wisconsin who did not want to leave her house for 20 years because of her missing front teeth. Her  sister brought her in, Dr. Christine Hermanson, who was volunteering, made the partial, and when she was done everyone was crying, not just the patient. Family members of patients  come back the next year to volunteer. Our students and foreign-trained dentists tell us that “even if you do not have a place for us to treat patients, we will be there to carry out the  trash for you”! 
Dr. Sledd: It’s so wonderful to be able to give back — the concept of “pay it forward”. And it never fails that we get so much back in appreciation, gratitude, hugs — and the  participants, including the patients, become energized and want it to continue. I was in Oregon, walking the line at 3:30 in the morning — rain, wind, cold — and people who had been  waiting all night for that care start applauding when they saw us. Once you experience that, you can’t wait for the next one. 
NWD: Explain the process that was involved in getting this first MOM event launched. Why was Mankato selected for the first event location? 
Dr. Sledd: Mankato was chosen because it is an area where we felt there was a significant need, because it gave us the opportunity to reach a lot of people, and because this is our  first event, we wanted to do it in an environment where we could be successful, and where we could learn how to do this while reaching as many people as possible. 
Dr. Aguirre: And you need a facility big enough to house everything. The Verizon Wireless Center has been given to us for free for this event. You need between 25 and 30,000 square feet; you need roads, hotels, infrastructure. Mankato had it all. You have to figure out what is optimum. 
Dr. Sledd: We’re going to be in the hockey arena. Area hotels are providing services for us as well. As for the process of getting this event launched — Alejandro has done a tremendous amount of work. Many volunteers are needed, and different types — clinical, hospitality, parking. There are so many things to think of. We are hoping to treat 2,000  people in two days; a million dollars worth of dental care. And the response has been great. As Dental Chair, I work with the “leads” — lead prosthodontist, lead endodontist, oral  surgeon, triage, anesthesia, restorative. All of these people are working so well in this planning phase as we approach our August date. We meet to role-play any scenario that could  occur, any patient — or volunteer — need that might appear. The Mission of Mercy has a significantly different set of aspirations from other dental events. 
It’s great to meet all these  different people. Not every story that walks by gets told, but we learn all over again how individual we are, and how important that is. 
Dr. Aguirre: No job is beneath you. We have a photo of former ADA president Kathy Roth taking out the trash! And I will tell you that after 12 hours of being on your feet in the clinic,  you don’t feel tired. The whole context of this is just about as healthy as it could be on so many levels. This opportunity to give back to his or her community is an opportunity we  need to provide to every MDA member. 
Dr. Sledd: For people who have never done anything like this, there’s a place for you. Don’t worry – we will teach you, and it’s not hard! [laughs] You must be at least 18, but you  can bring your spouse, family members, staff, friends … 

Minnesota Mission of Mercy chair Dr. Alejandro Aguirre at the Wisconsin event.

NWD: What are the goals for this first event? Do you have specific benchmarks, or more general goals?
Dr. Sledd: I think we will all have had enough experience at other MOM events that ours will run very smoothly. To me, the goal will be to provide all the dental care the people who  come to our door will need. That would be an awesome goal. As for numbers, if we get fewer than anticipated, that simply means we can provide more procedures per person. Alejandro and I won’t man a chair, but will be making sure that there are no bottlenecks, no open chairs — that kind thing. Helping the helpers. 
NWD: MDA members participate in other charitable dentistry events. How is this one different?
Dr. Aguirre: Operation Homeless Connect, for instance, includes dentistry within a broad range of services, and they do mostly extractions. With MOM, pretty much anything you can  do in a day you will do: fillings, cleanings, pedo, root canals, partials, extractions … While we can’t do ortho, orthodontists can certainly help! So can periodontists. They will find  themselves working side by side with colleagues they may have only met at meetings. And every professional you enlist will be thinking, “How can we do even more and make this even  better?” That’s a great synergy, and great benefit. Give Kids a Smile, of course, is strictly for kids, and in individual offices. MOM [laughs] will stretch every volunteer — in a good way. As well, you are encouraged to bring your assistants, favorite instruments or materials — bring what you want; that’s a form of donation too. The list of what we provide will be on the  website. You can donate time, money, materials. 
Dr. Sledd: Everyone will come with an idea of what it’s going to be and leave with a completely different and more fulfilling experience! 
NWD: It sounds like volunteers are truly the heart of a MOM event. Why should MDA members and their staff volunteer for MnMOM?
Dr. Aguirre: Because it’s the right thing to do. Our goals delineate what that means: providing free access to dental care while placing a high priority on patients suffering from dental  infections and pain; raising public awareness about the increasing difficulty low income adults and children face in accessing critical dental care; and challenging policymakers and  dental professionals to work together to reduce the disease burden and improve the oral health of Minnesota residents, especially those low income patients who have been promised  care by the state. 
Dr. Sledd: I can’t top that. It is the right thing to do. 
Dr. Aguirre: I will tell you the only resistance I have encountered is that people don’t understand what this is, and are put off by the numbers. But when they see it, they get it; it  will be so much bigger an experience, both professionally and personally. 
Dr. Sledd: We have many retired dentists signing up, and they have so much to offer. 
Dr. Aguirre: Everyone is welcome — we are inviting non-member dentists too. Anyone and everyone can contribute something. One thing that is very important is to recognize the  contribution from the Wisconsin Dental Association. Everything we have is stolen from them! [laughs] Seriously, everything you give is taken into the shared pool to keep this concept  growing and improving. 
Dr. Sledd: For our friends in Wisconsin, helping us with our first event has been just another way of giving back and paying it forward, and what a learning experience for us! 
Dr. Aguirre: See one, do one, teach one. That is the Mission of Mercy motto. You see something different at every event, and you see each event through different eyes. As you do,  it becomes so important to keep this going. 
Dr. Sledd: It’s humbling even as it revitalizes your passion for dentistry. 
NWD: Where can members find more information or sign up as a volunteer?

Both: Additional information and volunteer registration can be found at Click on “I am a Dentist” and follow the links