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Free care clinic in Seattle draws thousands

Louis Browne looks at a pair of glasses as patients received medical care on the main floor of Seattle’s KeyArena during a free health care clinic.
Louis Browne looks at a pair of glasses as patients received medical care on the main floor of Seattle’s KeyArena during a free health care clinic.
Erik Lacitis Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Piamela Seyum, 29, of Seattle, is No. 450 of those who wait patiently through the early hours of a weekday at Seattle Center’s Northwest Rooms.

When free medical care is advertised for everything from a root canal to on-site prescription eyeglasses to mammograms, lines form.

She was taking advantage of a four-day event advertised as the state’s largest free health-services event. It was part of a national health-care project called Remote Era Medical, started in Kentucky in 1985, that has sponsored hundreds of similar clinics around the country. About 4,000 people were expected to attend the Seattle event.

If you want to see one of those working poor that get written up in news articles, here she is.

Seyum works as an office manager at a small health-care office. She has Obamacare, but it mostly doesn’t cover adult dental procedures.

Recently, she said, she had one bad tooth pulled.

“That was close to $500,” she says. The dentist said she needed two cavity-filled upper molars pulled, too. She asked if she could make payments over time.

“They said, ‘We don’t do that.’ I called a couple of other places. They said the same thing,” she says.

Now, though, she’s back home, molars pulled.

It was her boss, Seyum said, who gave her the day off and suggested she go to the rather cumbersomely named Seattle/King County Clinic with Remote Area Medical.

But name aside, what it offers is really quite astounding.

The entire KeyArena was made into a giant clinic.

The floor where the Seattle SuperSonics and the Rolling Stones once played held 67 dental stations. More than 500 medical professionals and others wanting to help out volunteered.

On loan is a $200,000 “CAD/CAM” machine, which stands for “computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing,” which can design and mill a dental crown on the spot.

John Merner, director of Seattle Center Productions, was among the staffers who saw a “60 Minutes” segment on a Kentucky nonprofit called Remote Area Medical.

Merner’s group is charged, he said, “with bringing community-minded or low-cost stuff to the community,” and this fit the bill.

Remote Area Medical was started in 1985 by Stan Brock, who in a previous life was featured lassoing and doing other stunts on Marlin Perkins’ TV series, “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.”

The nonprofit says it has brought mobile clinics to 500 cities in the U.S., and another 240 or so to various parts of the world, serving a total of 545,000 people.

Merner contacted the nonprofit about a year ago, and things got going. As the Washington State Dental Association and University of Washington Medicine got on board, volunteers began signing up.

Heavily promoted was the word “free,” as was this: “No ID or proof of citizenship is required.”

And so the patients began to arrive.

There was Ryan Gunther, 42, a graphic designer who said “business is up and down.” He hasn’t been to a dentist in 15 years or more.

He could feel a wisdom tooth crumbling, he said, “As it broke and broke again.”

He got the tooth extracted, plus a full teeth cleaning.

There is Reyna Rosales, 33, who could feel the hole in a molar with her tongue. She got it filled.

Rosales is raising three kids, and her boyfriend lays tile. In recent years, she said, she’s suffered, “What is it called? Aneurysm.”

Most of those seeking help come for either dental work or eye problems, said a spokesman for Remote Area Medical, because health insurance often doesn’t cover those procedures and, unlike with a medical problem, you can’t walk into a hospital emergency room to have your eyes checked.

Among the other patients, there was Innocente Pedrolini, 51, who cooks hot dogs at CenturyLink Field events.

“Sometimes I work five or seven days a week; sometimes I’m off five or seven days,” he said. “I can’t afford to go to a dentist.”

Pedrolini had two cavities filled and got a flu shot.

Seyum was resting up from the two molar extractions.

She said she talked to her sister about the free event.

“My sister said, ‘You know, in Denmark, all the medical stuff is free,’ “ Seyum said.

Yes, well, Denmark. That’s a long way from here.

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