I’m Dr. Matt Heaton, and this is how I’m living deeply.
“We only met once, but the woman I treated last Friday made an impression I won’t soon forget. She hadn’t seen a dentist in over 10 years. She had a wisdom tooth with a very deep cavity in it where the nerve was exposed. And she couldn’t stop crying because she was so scared about how much it was going to hurt to get that out. It took 45 minutes of hand-holding and taking my time –just inching forward with baby steps through it- but at the end she cried tears of joy. The extraction was a success! She said, ‘This is one of the best experiences that I’ve ever had.’ Then she just thanked me and the team I was working with for being there and taking care of her, getting her out of pain. I see a moment like that as having the honor of being the hands and feet of Jesus to people and meeting them where they are. It’s what I get to do every time I volunteer with Knoxville’s Volunteer Ministry Center (VMC). I remember how I started doing this- I guess it’s been about 20 years ago now. When I finished my residency program and began running my private practice, Knoxville Periodontics, I found myself with some extra time on my hands. I learned there was a nonprofit dental clinic that needed volunteer help in Blount County, so I signed up. One thing led to another and I just found I had a real passion for working with the underserved in our community. Dentistry is a field in medicine where it is so easy to fall between the cracks for so many reasons- insurance, finances, fear. I mean, there are just so many reasons people won’t come to the dentist. Nonprofit dental clinics generally want to take the hesitation of finances off the table. After about five years I ended up switching where I volunteered. One of my good friends -an orthodontist- had been volunteering at VMC, but was leaving to go do overseas mission work. So VMC was without a volunteer dentist, and Knoxville was already where I lived and ran my practice. I thought, ‘This sounds like a perfect fit for me.’ I’ve been volunteering at VMC one Friday a month for four hours ever since.
The typical patient we see at VMC is in serious need; either low-income or outright homeless. Some have been victims of abuse- sometimes domestic, sometimes self-inflicted. We do see a lot of people broken by and recovering from drug abuse. Most are on the path to rehabilitation. Often they’re in a transition phase of life where they may be moving from homelessness to subsidized housing. One of the biggest barriers when they go to sign up for a job interview, for example, may be that they smile and there are holes in their mouth. So a lack of dental care in that case may shut a door. Plus, lack of dental care does lead to serious health problems, including infections. Medical literature has documented deaths because of dental abscesses that traveled to various parts of peoples’ bodies. So you really can’t just let major dental issues fester. Here’s the average experience I see: Somebody walks in and they are petrified because they have not seen a dentist in 5, 10, 15 years. They’ve been terrified to come in because they’re already in pain and they’re worried the dental work could add to that. Often we’re performing an extraction, where someone has an abscess or severe pain- something that’s been bothering them for a long time. So they come in and they’re humbled- they’re just desperate to get this pain taken care of. I’ve also removed bone spurs from peoples’ jaws that are the size of your thumb in preparation for dentures. I’ve removed impacted wisdom teeth. Our appearance is such a large part of how we present ourselves. You can smile without teeth, but it makes so much more of an impact when you can have a beautiful smile. The care we provide at VMC really does open doors for these patients- helping them with getting a job, getting a house, starting a new life in ways that they might not have ever been able to do before. It’s one of the most rewarding things we can do for somebody: to take a part of them that is broken and leave them more whole.
There’s no question that God is working in a lot of these peoples’ hearts. Yes, there’s a rehabilitation effort going on from a physical health perspective. But there’s also a spiritual rehabilitation these patients are going through in partnership with VMC or referral sources like Knox Area Rescue Ministries (KARM) and The Salvation Army. We are just one small leg of the stool to help them step up the ladder back into normal human society. Often they’ll ask us to pray with them. VMC is a place where we can share the message of the Gospel and be the servants of God in Christ. And we do get to see success stories! In many cases we make relationships with these patients as they continue to come back for dental services. It’s wonderful once they have stable housing and a solid job to see them smiling- and showing their teeth! I’ve been a dentist for 20 years now, and I consider dentistry to be a spiritual gift- no different than a lawyer or a teacher or a stay-at-home parent. God gives us gifts, and those gifts are for us to share. VMC has a great mix of volunteer dentists, volunteer hygienists, and volunteer assistants who help the ministry’s paid staff accomplish their inspiring work. So I’m part of a wonderful team of fellow servants. These are other qualified professionals who come down and pour out their passion, pour out their hearts to take care of people in their place of need. It’s the sort of opportunity I’d encourage any Christ-follower in this or a similar profession to prayerfully consider. There are several nonprofit medical and dental clinics in our area and they’re always in need of help. All you have to do is research, then reach out, and there’ll be opportunities at any of these clinics. Being able to volunteer at VMC is a little like tithing on my spiritual gift. I have the opportunity to give back in a way that models what Christ has given to me, and it’s a beautiful thing to be able to serve freely those who need it the most.”