At 9 a.m. Thursday the first person set up her folding chair in downtown Anchorage, nearly a day early for the two-day dental clinic that organizers called the Alaska Mission of Mercy.
ZhanCai Hanna Lee is missing her bottom front teeth. Others are broken and in the very back of her 59-year-old mouth there's a hole where she had a root canal, but could not afford the crown that also was required, she said.
Lee hopes the dental mission can deliver flippers to fill the gaps, she said. The clinic opens its doors at the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center at 4:30 Friday morning.
"This right here has been a blessing to us," she said, pointing to a sidewalk sign advertising the clinic. The Anchorage woman, who said she lives in transitional housing, called the free dental visit her "only option."
A local couple, dentists Julie Robinson and David Nielson, organized the Alaska Mission of Mercy with the help of many volunteers, aiming to provide free services for up to 2,000 adults and children who cannot afford care.
On Friday and Saturday, more than 240 volunteer dentists will clean, fill and pull teeth, do X-rays and root canals, and provide a limited number of flippers and temporary retainers to replace missing teeth. Dentists will see patients in the order they line up. Treatment starts at 6 a.m. each day and lasts for 12 hours.
"I'm going to get as much as I can done tomorrow," Lee said. She said she was laid off from her job stocking shelves in 2012; she hasn't been to the dentist in a decade.
As Lee held her spot, wearing a red blanket and eventually acquiring a borrowed sleeping bag, about two dozen people filed in behind her Thursday afternoon. Some were from Anchorage, others traveled from places like Ketchikan, Fairbanks and Tok for a free visit with a dentist.
People wore scarves, mittens and wrapped themselves in blankets preparing for overnight temperatures. Some brought tables, cards and dice. One woman knit a hat for another person two spots behind her in line. Many shared snacks and drinks.
Bill Westerlund, 30, secured fourth place in the row of prospective patients shortly after 11 a.m. On Wednesday he drove his mother's small SUV more than seven hours from Fairbanks, staying the night at his cousin's home before traveling downtown.
He said he thought he needed a root canal, extractions, a teeth cleaning and perhaps some fillings redone. When he chews, he has shooting pain through his nerves.
Westerlund didn't remember his last trip to the dentist; he's unemployed and for the past few months he picked up odd jobs around the house to earn gas money for the trip south. "I've been trying to squirrel away as much as I can," he said. "I'm trying to eat more than soft foods."
By TEGAN HANLON