NEW PORT RICHEY — While Anna Jones was pregnant with her second child, a filling in a back tooth fell out. It was just a bit of filling, not all of it, but it ached.
Jones and her husband don't have dental insurance. She is a homemaker. He works as an electrician and a bouncer at a bar, and he also is a student at Pinellas Tech. They have a home in Holiday. Their second child, a girl, is now 10 months old. A few weeks ago, the rest of Jones' filling fell out — more than a year since it first began hurting. Her husband said he has had a monster of a toothache for months, but hadn't said anything.
They saw an ad about a dentist who would be giving away free dental care on Friday and knew they had to go. They had a relative watch their kids.
Jones drove past the office of Dr. Vincent Monticciolo on Grand Boulevard in New Port Richey about 7:30 p.m. Thursday. She saw about 40 people camped out. Some had been in line since 8 that morning.
Monticciolo said the first 500 would be treated — although he had never been known to turn anyone away. This is the eighth year for the free dentistry — and by the time the last patient left about 7:15 p.m. Friday, 523 people had been treated.
Each patient got a choice of a filling, an extraction or a cleaning.
The temperatures that night were supposed to be 30 degrees or lower. Monticciolo's staff bought nearly 200 blankets and several space heaters. Many people brought sleeping bags.
"It's too cold," Jones thought. "I don't want to be out in that." She figured she would give it a few more hours before returning, since the crowd looked small. She came back around 1 a.m., carrying a blanket and wearing layers of clothes.
The parking lot was full. What had been a few dozen people at nightfall became hundreds, with more people coming behind her. Jones grabbed a spot. Her husband got there a few hours later after he got off work. Soon, more than 500 people were there, shivering, waiting for the dentist's doors to open at daylight.
Jones wasn't quite prepared for the biting cold. Volunteers gave her blankets. Some patients of Monticciolo's came in the wee hours with sandwiches and coffee. People who didn't bring chairs dug through trash bins to find boxes to sit on, because the asphalt was freezing.
People crowded around the space heaters, but shared the good spots, moving back from the warmth so someone else could have a turn. Security guards monitored the lot to make sure everyone behaved.
When many woke up, they found their blankets covered in frost. Monticciolo got there at 4:30 a.m. His team — 11 other dentists, 10 hygienists and 80 volunteers — arrived soon after.
One dentist flew in from Virginia. Others were from Florida. One volunteer flew in from California at 1 a.m. and was at the office by 4 a.m. to help register people. Some staffers of Monticciolo worked Thursday, stayed at the lot that night and then worked all day Friday.
"It's worth it," said Heidi South, who works in accounts for Monticciolo. "To see these people. … They don't stop saying, 'Thank you. Thank you.' "
Inside the office, things hummed smoothly. Workers plan all year for the event, where dentists see some of the worst possible cases — including people who haven't seen a dentist in decades.
The Medicine Shoppe across the street agreed to give away antibiotics to patients who needed them and offer reduced prices on pain pills, steroids and other medicines. If anyone has a complication from work done on the free service day, they can come back to Monticciolo's office. For people who needed serious work, staffers gave them information about dental schools in the area. People can sometimes get low-cost care by dental trainees.
Karen Weible, the office manager, said there are few clinics for people without dental insurance — and many companies don't offer it anymore to employees.
"We need someplace for them to go," she said of dental clinics. "It's a very real problem."
Friday afternoon, the front lot was still full of people waiting to be seen, clutching their numbered tickets. Every few minutes, a staffer called out numbers over a speaker system: "248, 249."
A small woman wearing huge sunglasses came out of a side exit, holding the side of her mouth. Stephanie Salso, 18, had an infected tooth pulled. She works at T.J. Maxx in Brandon and came here with her sister.
"They said it wouldn't hurt," she said, "but it did. Real bad."
A few seconds later, another young woman came out with gauze stuffed in her cheek. Jalitza Veloz is 21 and lives in Wesley Chapel. She is a bookkeeper at a security company and a graduate of the University of South Florida. She is finishing up a fifth year there, to be licensed as a certified public accountant. She graduates in May.
"I've been looking for dental insurance, but it's so expensive and it only offers you a discount," said Veloz, who camped out all night with her boyfriend, Sergio Matos, 24, a substitute teacher in Hernando County.
"This is a blessing," he said of the free day of care. He also got a tooth pulled. He came outside after Veloz, and they gave each other a gentle, quick kiss. Their speech was muffled. They bought sleeping bags, but planned on returning them so they could pay for their dental prescriptions.
"We try to make the best of it," Matos said. "But it's sad."
"We are doing the right thing — working, going to college, trying to pursue what America is all about — but we are still stuck in a rut," Veloz said.
"We just keep hoping it gets better."
Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4609.