As Dr. Stephen B. Thomas remembers, it was a story in the newspaper that started it all, the kind of story “that just won’t let you go.”
“It was about an emergency dental clinic in a high school gym,” says Thomas, a Professor of Health Services Administration at the University of Maryland. “Five hundred people were turned away and hundreds more were lying out in the hot sun waiting to be seen.”
So Thomas, who also serves as the director of the Maryland Center for Health Equity, picked up the phone. He wanted to know what he and the university could do to help. He made a pledge that day to bring to bear the all the resources that Maryland could muster. Thus was born, in 2014, the Mid-Maryland Mission of Mercy and Healthy Equity Festival.
Partnering with the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, the Mission of Mercy Festival takes place every two years on the university’s campus. The event, which draws hundreds of volunteer dentists, hygienists, medical professionals and students, is held in the Xfinity Center basketball arena. People begin lining up the night before the doors open for treatment using the most cutting-edge equipment available.
“We had pan x-rays,” says Thomas. “We had 3D printers that literally milled permanent crowns on the spot. We had a company that literally built dentures on the spot. The fact that we can take a basketball arena and turn it into a comprehensive dental care facility is a demonstration of what we can do when we come together to solve a serious problem.”
Beyond dental care, the Mission of Mercy Festival also offers a host of wrap-around medical services to patients. On hand are volunteer cardiologists, nutritionists, public health specialists and social service providers, to name just a few. The event even features entertainment in the form of singers from the University of Maryland Clarice Smith Center for the Performing Arts.
According to Thomas, the Mission of Mercy Festival is reflective of the way in which the university engages with the local community on matters of public health.
“We cannot be an institution of higher education, with great science to solve the world’s problems and yet the people living in the shadow of our buildings suffer from the very things we say we’re experts on. That’s where the Maryland Center for Health Equity comes in to reach beyond the walls of this campus. It provides a two-way bridge for the community to come on the campus and for our faculty and students to go out into the neighborhoods to make a difference.”