Too Poor for Dental Care Robs Wife of Husband's Kiss

Remote Area Medical serves 2,000 people in three days.

April 6, 2013— -- Val Crosby has been unable to kiss her husband for a year. A degenerative disease has rotted her teeth down to the gums, and they cannot afford dental care in their isolated pocket of Tennessee.

The 43-year-old holds down two part-time jobs, as a chamber maid at a seasonal bed and breakfast and as a waitress, and her husband, Jonathan, is a self-employed carpenter. Neither has health insurance.

"For the last couple of years, business has been hard, very hard," Crosby, who lives in Butler, told

But last year, she finally reached out for help from Remote Area Medical, or RAM, a pop-up medical clinic that offers free dental, medical and eye exams to those who don't have available health care.

Now, her story is told in a new documentary that has its world premiere this weekend as an official selection at the 2013 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, N.C. It will also screen at the International Film Festival Boston and the Nashville Film Festival in April.

In April 2012, directors Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman filmed RAM's operation at the massive NASCAR speedway in Bristol, Tenn., the heart of Appalachia and the birthplace of country music, where medical volunteers served 2,000 Americans in three days.

"People consider themselves lucky to live in this place," said Reichert. "But one of the other issues underlying their medical problems is not just that they are poor and uninsured, but they are 200 miles from the nearest doctor."

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Rhonda Begley, a lifelong smoker who had never seen a doctor, had a chest X-ray that revealed a suspicious spot on her lung. Glenn Epps is legally blind and hoped to find new technologies to help him regain the eyesight he lost while in an overoxygenated incubator as an infant. Doctors couldn't help him, but he walked away with a new set of dentures.

Johnny Peters has had all his top teeth removed, but because RAM could not offer prescriptions for painkillers, he had to resort to street drugs to ease his discomfort.

Crosby had no nerves in her teeth, and they shattered easily, a condition she inherited from her mother. She had hoped to have all her teeth pulled and receive dentures. But because of the demand for care that day, she could have only the five teeth with festering abscesses removed.

But Crosby said it was "very, very hard" asking for charity. "Pride is a thing that comes into it," she said. "We don't ask people for help. I grew up on a dairy farm, and that's how we were raised."

Remote Area Medical was founded by cowboy and pilot Stan Brock -- a onetime star of television's "Wild Kingdom" -- who spent 15 years helping indigenous peoples in the Amazon rain forest, but soon discovered there were just as many people in need in the United States.

Today it offers 246 pop-up medical clinics for the nation's 50 million uninsured.

This is only the second film for Reichert, 34, whose first, "Gerrymandering," premiered at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival; it was the first for Zaman, 29.

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A freelance journalist, Zaman previously worked as acquisitions manager at the independent film distribution company Magnolia Pictures and is in production on a new documentary to be released in 2014.

In 2011, the directors joined Reichert's aunt, a retired nurse, and volunteered at a RAM clinic in Pikesville, Ky., sitting at the registration table. The numbers were "staggering," and the "kindness" of volunteers brought them to tears.

"We'd ask simple questions about their prescription medication, and as we got the details of their personal medical history, we'd get their life stories – the drugs they were taking and the diseases and problems they'd had," he said. "We were stunned."

Even dental problems like Crosby's had a huge impact on their lives.

"It's an emotional issue for people -- your health is your life," said Zaman. I have no teeth and have no confidence. I can provide for my family if I feel good about myself."

The joy of volunteers also inspired the directors.

Thom Dandrige, with his wife, Judy, runs RAM's optical lab, which operates out of a retro-fitted Mac track once used for transporting NASCAR vehicles.

For more than a decade, Dr. Joseph Smiddy, a Tennessee pulmonologist, has been driving and operating a truck outfitted with high-tech X-ray equipment to various RAM events.

Patients waiting in long lines were frustrated at times, but grateful.

"The emotions were like a county fair, with people tailgating and making the most of the situation," said Zaman. "There was so much warmth there."

Reichert added, "Doctors can be like doom and gloom, but here they were part of the solution -- it wasn't perfect, but they made a difference in peoples' lives."

Val Crosby said the dental care she received was more than just cosmetic -- she'd worried that the infections in her mouth could lead to stress on her heart.

But more than that, the dental care helped lift a depression that had cast a long shadow over her life.

"I hope our politicians see the need for some kind of universal health care that includes dental, vision and medical, and caters to everybody, not just people who have money, but people who are struggling," said Crosby. "In a year or two, we might be high up on the hog. But right now, it's a struggle for us."