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The Berkeley Free Clinic at a glance

My evening as a volunteer dentist at the Berkeley Free Clinic starts at 6PM. The contrast between the sunny streets of Berkeley and the windowless basement, where the clinic is located, causes my eyes to take a moment to adjust. Volunteers at the front desk are busy receiving patients. Seeing me come in, they throw me a quick smile.

In the waiting area, about a dozen patients display some garden-variety fashion: an elderly man, victimized by male pattern baldness and deprived of hair-styling options, has nonetheless braided his long, gray beard neatly and elegantly; a young woman wears a neon-pink cape, flaunting numerous rings in multiple body parts. I notice Willie, who keeps meticulous notes of all his questions and my answers about his teeth, sitting next to the door, eyes fixing on a dog-eared notebook. He’s a “self-employed practicing environmentalist”, he once told me. It turns out that he spends his day collecting cans and bottles and transporting them to the recycling station, using his “zero-emission vehicle” – a shopping cart. Damien, the locally famous African-American musician and comedian whose decorated bicycle and home-made drums normally grace the sidewalks in downtown Berkeley, recognizes me.

“Hey doc,” says Damien. “Check this out.” Sitting in a chair, he balances a drumstick on his nose bridge.

Inside the room of the dental section, half a dozen volunteers are getting ready for the evening’s work. “Doc, the light doesn’t work,” a student volunteer informs me, throwing up his hands after trying several times to switch on the operation light. This is not news; the light has its own temperament and makes its own decision on whether or not to work. In fact, it isn’t the only thing that’s on strike. The patient chair, having been resuscitated numerous times and working long past its retirement age, refuses to rise when a relatively heavy patient sits in it; we have to accommodate it by lowering the dentist’s and the assistant’s chairs so as to practice “ground-level” dentistry. The blue light for curing composite fillings works intermittently, and complains in a loud, whiny voice whenever it works.

The first patient is already sitting in the chair. Ed, the volunteer coordinator and self-appointed engineer, tries to fix the light by wiggling and twisting the tangled wires behind it. In the meantime, two volunteers hold flashlights from different angles, so that I can start working on a filling. Two other volunteers assist me with suction and pass the instruments. Five heads huddle over the patient’s face. “I feel flattered to get so much attention,” comments the patient, a retired schoolteacher in her 70s, who has walked in with a cane. “Even my kids don’t get so close to me.”

The Berkeley Free Clinic opens to everyone. If you’d like to be a patient, a volunteer, or a donor (both monetary and dental equipment/supply donations are accepted), you can find useful information here.

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