UW School of Dentistry

School has big impact at free Seattle clinic

Dean Joel Berg of the School of Dentistry stood in the middle of the KeyArena floor, wearing scrubs and a wry grin.

“I just triaged a guy who said he’d gotten out of jail after five years yesterday, and the first thing he needed to do was see a dentist,” Dean Berg said.

Dean Joel Berg of the School of Dentistry screens a patient during the second day of the four-day clinic at Seattle’s KeyArena.
Dean Joel Berg of the School of Dentistry screens a patient during the second day of the four-day clinic at Seattle’s KeyArena.

Dr. Berg joined a contingent of Dentistry faculty, students and alumni who helped deliver free dental care to more than 3,400 Puget Sound residents during a massive four-day clinic at the arena Oct. 23-26. More than 1,400 volunteers from the dental community teamed up to furnish an estimated $2 million worth of care, with hundreds more providing medical care and vision services elsewhere at the arena.

The clinic was conducted by Remote Area Medical (RAM), a Tennessee-based humanitarian group that has staged similar clinics elsewhere in the United States and abroad. It was hosted by Seattle Center, KeyArena’s parent organization. Dozens of professional and community organizations, including the Washington State Dental Association (WSDA) and Seattle/King County Dental Society, joined the effort.

3,400 patients

More than 3,400 patients received free dental care at the four-day clinic.


Two Dentistry alumni, Dr. Jeffrey Parrish and Dr. Michael Karr, who served as dental clinic volunteer co-directors, started rounding up general dentists and dental specialists in February. Both are veterans of dental humanitarian outreaches.

Taking a rare breather during the Friday clinic, Dr. Karr marveled at the operation’s efficiency as he surveyed the black tarp-covered arena floor, humming with activity among 62 dental chairs lined up in long rows. A mobile van off the floor held several more chairs where dentists performed root canals, while X-rays were taken in another area off the main floor. After patients completed their treatment, they received information on sources of free or reduced-cost dental care in King County.

Sharon and Darby

Volunteer Sharon Thompson escorts Darby, an emotional support dog, during the clinic.


“The organization has been absolutely phenomenal,” Dr. Karr said. As it has done elsewhere, RAM provided all the infrastructure and supplies, including dental chairs, instruments, X-ray services and sterilization. The clinic even featured teams of emotional-support service dogs to reassure jittery patients.

Dr. Parrish and Dr. Karr recruited and briefed the dental volunteers, then worked as trouble-shooters during the clinic.

“We couldn’t have done this without RAM,” Dr. Karr said. “We knew there would be lots of things to do, but it’s going really smoothly.”

He also thanked Julia Colson, Seattle Center’s project director, who worked with RAM to organize the clinic. “This wouldn’t have been pulled off without her,” he said.

Patients, who started lining up at 3:30 a.m. each day for spots at the clinic, expressed their appreciation. Some talked of having gone as long as 15 years without seeing a dentist, often because of the cost.

“I loved it – it was so nice,” said Jennifer Miner, 30, of Bothell, who needed multiple fillings and repairs on a couple of broken teeth. She’d seen a dentist four months before for an extraction, but that had exhausted her resources for treatment.

“This is a really good system,” she said.

Another patient, a 26-year-old Kent homemaker, agreed.

“This is just a very helpful place,” she said.

Dr. Crinzi

UW dental alumnus Dr. Richard Crinzi, one of the clinic volunteers, briefs a patient after treatment.


“Unfortunately, the dental safety net is set up to provide care when oral health is at its worst,” Dr. Parrish said before the event. “Instead of sustainable funding for preventive and routine care, the dental safety net regularly provides treatment when dental problems become emergent.” The WSDA has long pushed to expand routine treatment in programs such as Medicaid, which is known as Apple Health in Washington.

But few complaints were heard on the KeyArena floor during the clinic.

“This is amazing – very well organized,” Dean Berg said on Friday. Starting about 7:15 that morning, he’d already screened about 30 patients by 9:30 and sent them on for treatment. He eventually screened more than 50 patients during his shift.

Said Kirkland oral surgeon Dr. Richard Crinzi, another UW dental alumnus volunteering at the clinic: “The patients have been fine, and they’re very receptive.” Many dentists brought their own office staff to work as dental hygienists and assistants.

According to Dr. Karr, patients weren’t the only ones who got a big lift from the clinic.

“You talk to the dentists after they’re done, and they’re just pumped,” he said.