Avid volunteers often say the work they do for others benefits them more than those they help.

Mission of Mercy Pittsburgh organizers and leaders know this is true, and the life-changing benefits of their annual two-day clinic, where people become free of dental pain, improve or recover their vision or hearing, all at no charge, is testament to this statement.

“This is a really tangible volunteer experience,” said Keith Young, the nonprofit’s chairman. “You are there, and you see the fruits of your labor right away.  You know what value you are bringing right away.”

The group has issued a call for assistance, and it will take more than 1,000 volunteers — professional and general — to staff this year’s clinic and support those who lack access to or cannot afford health care.

Since 2017 Mission of Mercy Pittsburgh has been dedicated to improving the quality of life to Western Pennsylvania residents from all walks of life and often in difficult financial situations. It started with free dental care, and over the past two years it added vision and hearing services, now helping children, starting at age 2, as well as adults.

Mission of Mercy has issued a call for dentists, oral surgeons, hygienists, dental assistants, opticians, ophthalmologists, nurses, nurse practitioners, physicians, pharmacists, lab techs, audiologists, imaging technicians and general volunteers to staff this year’s event, Oct. 27-28, at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown. Help is also needed for setup on Oct. 26.

Dental procedures and treatments will include dental exams, cleanings, minor restorative fillings, extractions, root canal treatments on select teeth, oral hygiene instruction, and a limited number of temporary partial dental appliances.

Patients can also receive free eye exams, eyeglass fittings and free eyeglasses; hearing care will include exams, clearing wax from ears and fittings for free hearing aids.

No experience is required for general volunteers, who act as ambassadors and assist with hospitality, check-in, on-site administrative tasks, setup, breakdown and more. Volunteers will participate in a training session prior to the event and will be provided with meals on the day(s) they serve, according to event organizers. Those interested can learn more when they register as a volunteer. 

Young said leaders organized Pittsburgh’s Mission of Mercy after a similar statewide group selected the city for a clinic in 2016. People flocked to it for dental care, but the group wouldn’t be able return for five years. Dr. Daniel Pituch, an oral surgeon who volunteered at the event, told him a clinic needed to be held every year. And it has, except for 2020 when the pandemic shut down everything.

Young, Pituch and Michael Zamagias, chairman and co-CEO of TeleTracking Technologies, where Young worked at the time, met and planned the first event at the Palumbo Center with 40 dental chairs, serving 850 patients. It grew from there, moving to PPG Paints Arena, helping 1,000 people in 2018 and then 1,348 in 2019. It moved to the Convention Center in 2021, the first year vision care was added, because of the need for more space.

As they compiled statistics, Young said they realized who they served. “The group we attract most are those folks that are trying to make a decision: ‘Do I feed the kids, do I pay the mortgage, or do I get my dental work done?’ ” he explained.

That ties into the reality that even people who work full time and have health care benefits do not have access to or cannot afford dental or vision care for themselves and their families. Co-pays can be a deterrent, too, and hearing aids are not covered by many insurances.

These facts fueled Young’s and Pituch’s drive to organize an annual clinic with help from Zamagias and other leaders and volunteers. The patient stories, well told on the Mission of Mercy Pittsburgh website, can bring anyone to tears.

“One woman hadn’t heard voices in 30 years,” Young said. After being evaluated, tested then fitted with free hearing aids, “The first voice she heard was the audiologist, and she said, ‘I can hear you.’  She started crying. That is truly life changing.”   

The difficult part is getting donations to cover supplies and equipment, and Young acknowledged the help of large companies as the major sponsors of the clinic and foundations. As the clinic’s reputation has grown and the leaders created a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, A Call to Care, the fundraising has become easier, he said.

“It’s hard to raise money [and get] dental supplies,” said Pituch, who is chief of oral and maxillofacial surgery at UPMC Mercy and UPMC Shadyside. “They’re very expensive supplies.” In addition, the nonprofit has to rent equipment and the venue.

He believes Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania are very fortunate to have so many professionals willing to support the clinic each year. He noted the contributions of Dr. Jonas Johnson, a professor and former chair of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine’s Department of Otolaryngology, and Dr. Jose-Alain Sahel, founder of the UPMC Vision Institute and distinguished professor and chairman of Pitt’s School of Medicine School of Ophthalmology, who helped with adding the hearing and vision components. A side benefit is the statewide organization can take care of people’s dental care in other cities.

Dr. Daniel Pituch prepares a patient for dental care at a past Mission of Mercy Pittsburgh clinic. (Courtesy of Mission of Mercy)

“Other cities don’t have this kind of outpouring of support,” Pituch said. “People here are good people with good hearts. We have an overwhelming amount of volunteers. We have over a thousand volunteers. It’s a very big operation. 

“We always want more dentists. We have a lot of people who come to the event. We will have 100 chairs [this year], but we don’t always have dentists to fill all of them. We want to keep the chairs moving.”

Top dental priorities are to prevent infections that can cause life-threatening conditions and costly trips to emergency rooms, help those with dental pain, and provide restorative and preventative dental care. “In our region, we had over 3,000 ER visits in one year related to dental emergencies,” Pituch said. “And each one of those costs thousands of dollars.”

Young stressed that patients do not have to preregister or meet any eligibility requirements. “You show up, you get treated,” he said. 

Before seeing any of the professionals, patients undergo a medical exam and are counseled on maintaining good oral health, smoking cessation and diabetes. Sometimes, Pituch said, people with serious medical issues end up being sent to a hospital emergency room instead.

“We have an entire medical triage section,” he explained. “Every year we identify problems in some cases life threatening. … We find problems they don’t even know they have.”

Young said the amount of high blood pressure and diabetes uncovered has been so numerous that this year the American Heart Association will be on site to counsel people as needed.

Pituch sees the services having additional benefits. “All of these are opportunities for health care professionals to interface with the public,” he said. “We give [patients] resources as to where they should go for additional help with these problems. We want a healthy community. We can’t take care of every single problem, but this is moving things in the right direction.”

Lawton Snyder, chief executive officer of the Eye and Ear Foundation that supports the academic and research efforts for the departments of otolaryngology and ophthalmology at Pitt, said, “We’re extremely proud of being a part” of the two-day clinic. “It is part of our mission that we realize that there is a lot of need to advance care in communities of need,” he said. 

In 2021 when the vision component was added, that need was clear. Snyder said the professional staff completed close to 500 exams and gave away 300 eyeglasses. 

“Sadly, if you don’t have good coverage for dental care, you don’t have vision care or hearing care,” he said. “That was our first experience, but at that mission, we were already talking about adding hearing. … We had the first with all three in 2022. It was unbelievable. … The need that the people who were coming there had for the care we were providing, it was enough to just kind of bowl you over.”

Dr. Catherine Palmer, a professor in Pitt’s Department of Communication Science and Disorders who serves as the director of audiology for the UPMC Integrated Health System, had estimated the need for hearing aids based on her experience with HEAR-UP — Hearing Education and Resources for Underserved Population project at the Birmingham Free Clinic. That program takes equipment to complete hearing tests and provides hearing aids to Jewish Community Services and Catholic Charities, too.

“People in the normal population don’t want to deal with hearing aids until their spouses push the issue,” Snyder said. “She knows that, and we know the trends. She estimated she would need 80 hearing aids, and we would see a couple of hundred people. The line never stopped. They did 417 hearing exams [and] 229 people received hearing aids. Halfway through the first day, Dr. Palmer had to call the company for more.”

Hearing aids normally cost about $3,000, but the Starkey Foundation, the Buncher Foundation and other donors, as well manufacturers reducing their costs, overwhelmingly dropped the cost of the devices patients received.

“It just tells you people are walking around with profound hearing loss, and it’s affecting their everyday lives, and they don’t have the money for hearing aids,” Snyder said. “It shines a light on the issue with hearing aids. They now have the over-the-counter hearing aids. It’s better if you can actually get a well-fitting hearing aid that is programmed to the hearing loss that you have. It’s much better.”    

On the vision side, in 2022, the clinic had 12 vision screening stations, and two adolescent screening vans provided by and staffed by Vision to Learn, Snyder said. “They work with school systems in underserved schools. They’re a national organization and have a big footprint in the region. We connected with them when they were coming here, and we partner with them.”

Pitt medical, dental and audiology students will be volunteering at the event alongside their faculty. Pituch said the Pitt Dental School will close down most of its clinics to help Mission of Mercy Pittsburgh.

A patient undergoes a consultation at a Mission of Mercy Pittsburgh clinic. (Courtesy of Mission of Mercy Pittsburgh)

Snyder said estimates of the value of the eye and hearing care last year was $170,000 and $61,000 respectively, with more than $300,000 in hearing aids given away. In addition to foundation donations, the Eye and Ear Foundation board raised $83,000 for any needs not covered.

“It was a monumental, heroic effort,” he said. “We are excited about repeating it this year.  No doubt we will need it again.”

And that just fits with the foundation he leads. “The focus of the mission is really on the people there [at the clinic],” he said. “We have a strong emphasis on providing care with dignity and respect, and I think everyone really embraces that through the mission.

“It’s the nicest group of people [there]. They are so appreciative. They were greatly thankful and humble. The majority of the people are the working poor. You can have a full-time job with insurance but may not have dental or vision coverage and are unable to afford them.”

In addition to seeking volunteers, Young said the organization is working hard at promoting the event and reaching all who need the health care offered. A Philadelphia agency has put together a media advertising plan, and flyers will be taken to churches, the Red Door initiative Downtown and other organizations.

After care is also organized with partners such as Catholic Charities and the Pitt Dental School. Young said much of the care people need who have gone without routine dental, eye and hearing care, sometimes for decades, and the problems that come with it, won’t be solved with a visit to a clinic.

In addition to HEAR-UP, Snyder also acknowledged the student-run Guerrilla Eye Service has done regularly in the community since 2005, established and led by Dr. Evan Waxman, which works with federally funded clinics and facilities throughout the region. Thanks to a donation from the Brothers Brother Foundation, Pitt professionals have a mobile van to go out to communities and offer vision screenings, he said. And telehealth helps, too, including retinal fundus cameras placed throughout the region in clinics. Professionals can take photos of the backs of patients’ eyes and send them to Waxman and his team to review and suggest follow-up care and treatment.

Pituch has been looking ahead to find a way to serve more patients needing affordable dental care in addition to what is offered at Pitt’s Dental School and Catholic Charities.

“One of our goals is to look at putting together an urban-based dental clinic that is open year around,” he said. “It may not be open five days, but maybe one day to start.  We need to find the space available and find volunteers to staff it. … It would be a very good model for people with dental problems. This is not just a problem in Pittsburgh. It’s a problem throughout the country.”

Mission of Mercy Pittsburgh will take place Friday, Oct. 27, and Saturday, Oct. 28, at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, 1000 Fort Duquesne Blvd., Pittsburgh, PA 15222. Doors open at 6 a.m., and everyone is urged to arrive early as services are on a first-come, first-served basis until capacity is met. There is no income or eligibility requirement; everyone is welcome. 

Information on the event for patients is available on the Mission of Mercy Pittsburgh site.

Individuals and groups can volunteer for one or both days.

Mission of Mercy Pittsburgh expanded its health care services to include children, starting at age 2, as well as adults. (Courtesy of Mission of Mercy Pittsburgh)

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at hfallon@unionprogress.com.

Helen Fallon

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at hfallon@unionprogress.com.