by Mary Jo Doig
“Everybody’s forgotten about us down here,” the chunky young man said to me, his brown eyes sad. “I didn’t want to hurt my back working in the coal mines and wind up disabled with no insurance.” We sat in the dental triage tent at a Remote Area Medical mission in Wise, Virginia, one of the poorest parts of our state. For three days, more than 1700 volunteers gathered from all over to donate free medical, dental, and vision skills to thousands of uninsured men, women, and children.
For most of my time there, which started at 5:30 am on Friday and ended about noon on Sunday, I was a “runner,” charged with the compassionate handover of each patient from their current station to their next. My cherished friend John and I were taking dental triage patients to hygiene, fillings, or extraction stations, then passing them on to the next person for their care.
It was the brief walk I took with each patient that I remember most. I would ask their name and give them mine, shake their hand, and look into each pair of eyes. Most smiled as I said I was here for the first time, then asked if this was their first time. Some were returnees who come annually for this, the only possibility for their care; others were first-timers, like John and me.
“I’ve been blown away with what I’m seeing happen here,” I’d say, my
heart filled with emotion. Most responded with an enthusiastic, “Yes, it’s wonderful what people are doing for us here,” then look at me and say, “Thank you.”
Tears well as I remember saying softly, “Please know it’s an honor for me to be here.”
John and I didn’t know what to expect when we decided we would go. We just wanted to go. Now, in hindsight, we are still awed by certain memories, like the young, very pregnant mother of four, there to get her decayed-to-the-gumline teeth removed. She’d traveled here, then made an unexpected visit to the hospital when she thought her water had broken. Fortunately it hadn’t for, if she’d been admitted to the hospital, she would have needed to wait until next year for her much-needed care.
I remember so many faces and stories. Nor will I soon forget hearing RAMs founder, Stan Brock, tell us the night before the event opened that he hoped one day the people in our country would not need these services so he could take RAM to more third-world countries.
It will take time for me to emotionally process what happened last weekend. Yet what was so unexpected and welcomed, was the deepest sense of us all being one large group of humanity–those who gave and those who received–and how we each gave overt as well as silent, unspoken gifts to each other.
There was also the humbling reminder that how, in the flash of a moment in time or fate, we could all so easily change places.
Mary Jo Doig is a life-writer, editor, reader, gardener, knitter, and quilter whose day job is coordinating a volunteer dental program at the Rockbridge Area Free Clinic in Lexington, VA.