More patients with routine dental problems turn to hospital emergency rooms
Cheryl Watson-Lowry is one dentist who still takes Medicaid patients at her South Side practice. But she's had to cut back recently or risk not staying open at all.

"If Medicaid would just take the money that they're spending in the ER and put it into fees so we could cover our overhead, we'd make a huge dent in taking care of this issue," she said.

Over the last several years, Cook County has closed a number of public dental clinics for budget reasons. Add the lingering effects of the recession, and the facilities that remain are overwhelmed, with waits of two to three months for even the simplest procedures.

Research shows that poor dental health may be linked to heart disease, stroke and oral cancers. In children, untreated decay is one of the leading reasons for missing school, said Watson-Lowry, who has been working with public officials to remove barriers.

For Postlewaite, her suffering was finally alleviated this month, by getting her cavity filled at the Center for Dental Excellence in Flossmoor, which provided a free day of care.

She found plenty of company in line, where decay, loose molars and infected gums intersected with joblessness, marital woes, foreclosure and maxed-out credit cards.

Bea Minner, 55, an unemployed secretary, spotted a poster about the pro bono event at a Tinley Park food pantry and eagerly told her daughter, Jody Drzewiecki, who had been plagued by a miserable toothache. Dental visits were a need they could no longer afford, taking a back seat to rent, food and gas.

"There were times when the pain got so bad that I just had to stop eating, drinking … even talking. I'd just put a fist in my mouth to apply pressure and just get some relief," said the 29-year-old Drzewiecki, who is also out of work.

Despite attempts to get into the free dental clinic at Stroger Hospital, Drzewiecki could never snare one of the coveted 40 appointments. The facility typically fields 400 requests each day, according to its website.

Minner came away from the Flossmoor clinic with a cleaning — and also left her resume. Drzewiecki was "thrilled" with her extraction and vowed to take good care of her teeth.

Karen Plath, a single mom from Homewood, lost health coverage when she divorced nearly a decade ago.

The self-employed massage therapist has no insurance and uses dental floss obsessively to ward off decay.

After nine years without seeing a dentist, Plath went to the Flossmoor event and needed just a single filling, she said. "I was so happy to get it done … I was in tears."