NEW PORT RICHEY — They used a can of chicken they got at a food bank to make chicken salad, and spread it on buttered bread as they sat outside. It's soft. Judy Berens, 58, and Linda Gibson, 57, don't have many teeth left, and the ones they have are starting to split and rot. They hurt. The last time Gibson tried to eat something hard — a lollipop, not even chewing on it, just holding it in her mouth — half a molar came out with it.
"It's hard to eat anymore," Gibson said.
She and Berens were the first ones in line Thursday for today's Dentistry from the Heart, a day of free dental care at Monticciolo General and Sedation Dentistry at 4530 Grand Blvd. in New Port Richey.
Dr. Vincent Monticciolo founded the event in 2001 and now the idea has spread across the United States. Monticciolo said more than 250 Dentistry from the Heart events are planned this year.
"We're excited," Monticciolo said.
The idea began with Monticciolo wanting to give back to the community and help people who needed dental treatment but couldn't afford it.
It started with Monticciolo and a retired dentist. This year, there will be 16 dentists and oral surgeons, a staff of 40 plus 100 volunteers. Three of the dentists have flown in from other states — Virginia, Idaho and Ohio. Each patient gets a choice of a tooth extraction, a filling or a cleaning.
Last year, they treated 523 people. This year, they expect more.
"We sent flowers to our neighbors to apologize for the traffic" that will clog the streets during the event, Monticciolo said.
The doors open at 7 a.m. today and are supposed to close at 5 p.m., but always end up staying open a bit later.
Berens and Gibson began camping out at 9:30 a.m. Thursday. Soon others drifted in. By 6 p.m., more than a hundred people waited in the parking lot.
"I'm crazy about this guy," Berens said. "What he does comes from his heart."
Berens and Gibson wore the free T-shirts they got from last year's event. This is Berens' sixth time and Gibson's third. Every year, they get a tooth pulled.
"I need all of mine taken out," Gibson said. She has been putting clove oil directly on her exposed root to numb the pain since November.
The women met each other while living in the same apartment complex in 1983 and moved in together with their children after their divorces.
Berens worked in a lumber yard most of her life and now has two fake knees, a fake shoulder, a plate in her neck, chronic back pain and migraines. Gibson has fibromyalgia and herniated discs in her back. She said she served in the Air Force and gets medical coverage, but not dental, at the VA.
Both grew up as the only girl with several brothers, so they are like sisters. They live together in a mobile home in Hudson with two rescued cats. Berens and Gibson said they barely have enough on their fixed income to pay their mortgage, utilities and medicine bills.
But they were in good spirits Thursday afternoon. From experience in years past, they brought flashlights and extra toilet paper for the portable toilets, though they were thrilled to find out this year the dentist upgraded to toilets with lights inside them.
They bought snacks at a dollar store and had Sudoku puzzles to work on, a Tetris game they bought at a garage sale and blankets for the night, ready to live outside for nearly a day just to get their teeth pulled.
"For (Dr. Monticciolo) to do this for us — the people who need the help, the ones falling through the cracks — we appreciate everything he does and everybody who helps him," Berens said. "It's amazing."
Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6229.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Monticciolo General and Sedation Dentistry is located at 4530 Grand Blvd. Due to incorrect information given to the Times, the wrong address appeared with the original version of this story.