Even in the seventh grade in Jamestown, Chris Phelps knew he wanted to be a dentist.
By then, he was a rare child who loved going to his dentist, Dr. Eric Von Lilly of Greensboro. That year, Chris and his pal Marcus went to the first and only meeting of the Greensboro Future Dentists of America Club. The host, another Greensboro dentist, showed the boys his office, projected a slide show to explain what he did and pulled out his shiny extraction tools to demonstrate how he pulled teeth.
“When we left, I said to Marcus, ‘This is what I’m going to do when I grow up,’” Phelps said. “It just seemed like he was providing people with a service – making people feel better when they had a pain, giving people nice smiles.”
Phelps did become a dentist, and on Saturday, he and his six dentists are offering that service for free to low income and uninsured people who’ve gone without proper dental care. They’ll perform tooth extractions and cleanings at the Matthews office of Phelps’ Carolinas Dental Center. Fillings will have to be done later.
The doors will open at 6:30 a.m. and Phelps is guaranteeing care for the first 150 in line, likely more. “We will do our best to get to all who show up,” he said.
The free one-day care is part of the international Dentistry From The Heart movement. Five years ago, Phelps was at a conference in Atlanta and heard a pitch from the movement’s founder, Dr. Vincent Monticciolo.
“He was sharing the framework for how to do it, and I thought, ‘I want to do this. Our community needs this. I had seen that more and more people were unable to afford dental care,” said Phelps, who was just out of dental school in 2003 when he moved to Matthews and joined a practice with dentist Thomas Grimes. He now owns and is president of the practice with offices in Matthews and Waxhaw.
“But at the time, it was just me and Dr. Grimes and it seemed the timing wasn’t right.”
He thought about his father, Latham Phelps, who’d spent years helping people with disabilities find work. “My dad was a man of action,” he said. “I admired that.”
Two years later, he and his wife had joined Elevation Church and he/ was moved to action by a book written by the church’s pastor, Steven Furtick.
“He wrote that a lot of people strive to do something great and as a result stop short and do nothing,” Phelps said. “He suggested that you should just try to do something greater than what you’re doing.”
So one Saturday last December, Phelps staffed each of his two offices with three dentists, support staff and volunteers.
They provided care for 320 patients, a donation of about $150,000 in dental care. Ultimately, Phelps wants to donate $500,000 in care by 2017.
The first patient, a woman with three infected teeth, arrived the evening before at 5 p.m. – and stood in line all night. She’d driven 50 miles to get help.
At 6 a.m. Saturday, Phelps arrived with the line wrapping around his building.
“I was blown away,” he said. “It was bittersweet. I felt good that we were going to be able to help a lot of people. But at the same time, a lot of people had to wait overnight to get help they badly needed.
“Far too many people are going without dental care.”
Some patients came in wheelchairs, one an 85-year-old veteran with an infected tooth who said the VA hospital couldn’t see him for another several months.
Another showed up on a “flat-bed” wheelchair, laying on his stomach. He had two abscessed teeth. Phelps helped him into a chair and pulled the teeth.
Filling cavities, he said, slowed the process and that is why on Saturday the dentists will deal only with cleanings and extractions. Working from 6 a.m. to after 9 p.m. exhausted the dentists and his staff, so he’s bringing everyone to the Matthews office this year. They’ll work in two shifts, three dentists a shift.
The day was so gratifying, Phelps is urging other dentists in the Charlotte region to join the movement. He’s offered to help them set up their own Dentistry From The Heart programs.
Last year, Phelps finished with his last patient at 9:40 p.m. and went home with a bottle of wine waiting. On his Facebook page, he posted a photo of him uncorking the bottle. He wrote: “My last extraction of the day.”