Based on daily estimates for the three-day event, some area dentists on Friday and teams from Howard University and the University of Buffalo arriving Saturday saw the majority of approximately 1,700 patients at the Wise County Fairgrounds.
One University of Buffalo dental student said about 200 patients passed through exam chairs before closing Sunday.
Much of the 1,000-patient flow on Saturday also went through the dental shelter.
“I think it’s a wonderful testament to the humanity in our area,” said The Health Wagon executive director Teresa Tyson as volunteers began winding down services and striking tents around noon Sunday.
“People come in so sick and don’t realize what condition they’re in until we see them,” Tyson said.
While patient load this summer was less than the 2,000-to-3,000 level typically seen in the past two decades in Wise County, Tyson said that could be a hopeful sign for medical needs in the area.
“We’re starting to turn around outcomes in Southwest Virginia,” Tyson said. “We’re not at the bottom of the barrel anymore.”
Part of the patient decline may be the introduction of another summer free medical event in the area: the Virginia Dental Foundation’s Mission of Mercy clinic, which became a separate event hosted at The University of Virginia’s College at Wise in 2018.
This year’s Mission of Mercy is scheduled for July 12-13 from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day at UVa-Wise’s David J. Prior Convocation Center. Tyson said MoM and the RAM dental clinics will expand accessibility in Southwest Virginia for a high-demand medical service.
Tyson said The Health Wagon and RAM, co-organizers of the 20-year event, are getting approaches from health care groups in Southside Virginia on how to provide similar services in their region.
“Last year we did more preventative dental care like cleanings than we did extractions and fillings,” Tyson said.
Tyson and pulmonologist and Health Wagon Medical Director Joe Frank Smiddy agreed that Sunday was not the end of The Health Wagon’s mission for the weekend’s patients.
“We’ve got a lot of abnormal pathology followups for patients,” Tyson said.
“It’s the dentists who bring in the most people in pain, and then they get exams and services in other areas,” Smiddy said. “We’ve seen a lot of people with significant heart disease, enlarged hearts, COPD and hypertension. I have a long list of people in my pocket that I’ll be following up with starting Monday.”
Smiddy, who has run The Health Wagon’s chest X-ray van for several years, said he has seen instances in the past three days of what has been identified as a resurgence of coal miners’ pneumoconiosis — black lung.
“There are people in mining jobs already showing signs, but they’re hiding their health issues to keep their jobs,” Smiddy said.
John Culp, a family medical practitioner with the Quillen College of Medicine and longtime Health Wagon and RAM volunteer, said the weekend has been hard work but a chance to meet and talk with a lot of different people.
“I’m thankful if that means things are getting better in the area,” Culp said of this summer’s lower patient turnout. “I’ve had a chance to talk with a lot of interesting people.”
Sister Bernie Kenny, who founded The Health Wagon and organized the first Wise County RAM clinic with RAM founder Stan Brock, said the secret to RAM’s success has been care.
“When a person knows someone cares about them, they get better,” Kenny said. “I’m writing a book, and the title is, ‘I’m Better For Being With You.’ ”
“We’re proud of all that has been done,” Kenny said.