It was midday Friday and hundreds of people were lined up outside Chrysostom Family Dentistry in West Columbia, among them Charles Amerson Jr., who hadn't been able to go to the dentist in 5 1/2 years.
Amerson, 45, needed a tooth removed but is unemployed and doesn't have many options. He'd been in line since 6 a.m. – more than seven hours – but was willing to wait.
"Patience is a virtue," Amerson said.
Alex Chrysostom, the practice's general manager, expected that by the end of the day at least 200 patients would be helped, up from almost 180 people last year.
"I wish we could see everybody, but we'd end up working until the beginning of next week with the number of people that are out there now," he said.
Still, said his father, Dr. Deno Chrysostom, "We're going to make a dent in it."
More than 45 million Americans did not have dental insurance in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A National Association of Dental Plans survey found that only 54 percent of Americans were covered in 2009 – 10 million fewer than in 2008.
Some of the patients outside the Chrysostom practice had camped out since 7 o'clock the night before to receive cleanings, fillings and extractions.
This practice is one of 250 associated with Dentistry From The Heart, a nonprofit that sponsors more than 200 free dental events nationwide annually.
"At no other time in my memory have so many Americans been without care," said Brian Carlsen, Dentistry From The Heart's operations director.
Carlsen said his organization targets patients 18 and older because children tend to have more services to take care of their teeth while adults are often overlooked.
He said businesses that join Dentistry from the Heart receive nonprofit status and get the chance to serve their communities more effectively because they can accept donations without too much red tape.
It took 60 days of preparation at Chrysostom. That included preparing sterile instrument trays, marketing the event, finding doctors and staff to help and receiving donated materials.
More than 20 students from Midlands Tech's dental assistant program and five additional dentists volunteered.
Deno Chrysostom said that between his first two patients Friday, he had to remove five teeth just because they were so badly decayed. He said he expected to spend about $200,000 for the day.
Still, he said, "whatever the cost is, it's insignificant compared to he blessing we receive from it."