Flo Turner couldn't stop smiling.
Tilted back in a chair as the sedative wore off Thursday morning, she felt the oral surgeon slip in her new dentures. The 12 rotten teeth Dr. Mark Mitchell pulled out lay on a tray in front of her.
A few moments later, he raised the chair and handed her a mirror. Tears ran down her cheeks as she looked for the first time.
"Thank you so much for what you did for me," Turner said, crying and smiling at the same time. "My daughter's going to freak out."
Just a few weeks ago, Turner had little hope of getting help for her painful mouth in time for her only child's wedding next month.
One by one, she collected her teeth in an old orange prescription bottle as they fell out. Her physician wrote her a prescription for antibiotics, fearing that the infection in her mouth could spread to her blood with fatal complications.
The 48-year-old Tampa resident called countless dentists in several counties for help. Turner, who has been disabled for 22 years, receives Medicaid through the medically needy program.
The last time she saw a dentist was in 2003, before she moved to Florida from California. Once in Tampa, she struggled to find a dentist through Medicaid. And in the last 18 months, the infection in her mouth dramatically worsened.
In Florida, adults on Medicaid can see a dentist only for emergency services. Preventative procedures aren't offered. And few doctors work with the program and treat patients with needs like Turner.
When they read Turner's story last month in the St. Petersburg Times, Mitchell and Dr. Steven Neyer decided to help for free.
Mitchell volunteered to do Turner's surgery. Neyer, also located in Dunedin, made Turner's dentures with the help of C&C Dental Lab.
"I could see why she had all that pain," Mitchell said. "As a human being, you want to help. When she asked me why I was doing this, I told her she was worth it."
Medicaid reimbursements for dental work are low, so low that it doesn't cover the overhead it costs to treat patients, Mitchell said.
"You can choose to help people, but you can't operate your practice on that level because it could be less than your expenses," he said.
Despite the broken system, Mitchell said many dentists and oral surgeons offer ways to help patients get the care they need. He pointed to groups like the Gulf Coast Dental Outreach program and the state Project: Dentists Care network.
But charity can only go so far, patient advocates say. The lack of access to dental care goes beyond Medicaid.
There are more than 100 million Americans who don't have dental insurance, according to the nonprofit group Oral Health America. And it's a problem that's spreading to those who used to be able to afford seeing a dentist.
On Thursday, Turner said she looked forward to her new smile and being able to eat again. She even stole a peek at the teeth Mitchell removed.
"I can't believe those were in my mouth," she said. "I'm so grateful that people wanted to help. For the first time in my life, I'm going to have pretty teeth."
Just before she left the office, she thanked the doctors again. She wondered how she could ever repay them.
"Here's the way you pay us back," Neyer said. "You go out and have confidence, feel good about yourself and get on with your life."
And she had better send pictures from the wedding.
Chandra Broadwater can be reached at email@example.com, or (813) 661-2454.