A woman sits in the waiting room, her eyes peeking out over the scarf wrapped around her mouth. She acknowledges Dr. Michael McCracken not with words, but with a slight nod of the head and a hand gesture.
It’s not an unusual encounter for McCracken. His patients often come into the office wearing some sort of mask to minimize tooth sensitivity to air.
“She’s hurting. She’s been hurting. Where else is she going to go?” he said, sitting in the conference room of the Foundry Dental Center, a safety-net clinic in Bessemer that serves people who would otherwise not be able to afford treatment, particularly those in addiction recovery programs.
Founded in 2009, the clinic was an unexpected change in the stable career path that McCracken had established for himself as a full-time professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Dentistry. While driving on the interstate one afternoon, he saw a billboard for the Foundry Rescue Mission and Recovery Center, a Christian-based organization that offers recovery and re-entry programs. This was the first time, he said, he heard God’s call to go to Bessemer.
“I kind of logged that in my brain and did nothing for about three months,” he said. Then in a similar situation, he said he heard God’s voice a second time.
So McCracken paid a visit to the Foundry recovery center. He decided to volunteer as a mentor in the program, but during his next visit, he said, “It was just clear that they didn’t need another mentor. They needed a dentist.”
People change radically after a year in the recovery program, he explained, but they look in the mirror, and they see their old selves through the physical toll that addiction had taken on their teeth.
McCracken, 48, is one of about 10 board-certified prosthodontists in Alabama. He received his dental degree at the University of North Carolina before completing a residency in prosthodontics and earning a doctorate in biomedical engineering at UAB. On another occasion where he felt he heard God’s call, he began working part-time as a professor at UAB’s dental school in order to serve as executive director of his own clinic in Bessemer.
Originally, the Foundry Dental Center operated out of a vacant dental clinic. “I knew the guy who ran that practice, and he moved,” McCracken said. “That was a real blessing because he left all the old equipment.”
But the property owner received a lease offer about a year later, so McCracken said he wandered around, searching for a new location. He discovered an empty building that happened to be on the same block as the clinic’s close partner, the Foundry recovery center. The building also happened to serve a similar purpose in its history.
The main side of the office, McCracken explained, had been a medical and dental office in the 1940s and ‘50s. “We still occasionally have a Bessemer patient that comes and says, ‘When I was a kid, I used to go to the dentist here. I used to go to the doctor here,’” he said, “It’s kind of come full circle now.”
Between the support from the Foundry and the donations of time and resources from members of Asbury United Methodist Church, McCracken was able to move into the building at a reasonably low cost. For example, a man from his Sunday school did all of the electrical work. “He worked nights. He worked weekends. He came over and probably did $35,000 of work for us just as a contribution,” McCracken said. “It was huge.”
The other side of the building, what is now the conference room, used to be a beauty salon. During the renovation, McCracken said he brushed off a dusty piece of cardboard, revealing a list of prices for hair treatments that he took into consideration when establishing the costs of the services his clinic provides.
“It was like a cut and a style, a color and a weave, and a curl, all $30 to $80. So, we said $50 for a filling. If you can pay $50 for a hair product, you can pay $50 for a filling,” he said. Still, he insisted they never turn a hurting individual away. The clinic has about 1,000 patient visits a month.
One of the most common treatments is what they call “The Denture Special,” where patients have all of their teeth removed and receive a set of dentures for $950. “If you did that down the street,” he said, “it would be, say, $3,000.”
Providing such low-cost dental care is possible because of volunteerism, McCracken explained. In the beginning, he said, “Our front desk was from the church. Our dentists were volunteers. Our staff was from the Foundry, so we didn’t pay anybody. All we had to pay for were supplies and electricity and utilities.”
Seven of the clinic’s dental chairs came from a former dental clinic that was moments away from being bulldozed. “A miracle story,” McCracken called it. A crew worker noticed the chairs, so he halted the demolition and called a friend who worked for the Foundry. It just so happened that McCracken’s clinic was in need of chairs.
“In five years, we’ve gone from three chairs to 14 chairs,” he said. “Well, 20, if you count the other clinic.” Foundry Dental Center West opened in Ensley last February.
As the clinic has grown, its services are largely supported by education. Each year, McCracken and fellow clinic director Dr. Guy Rosenstiel teach courses to about 100 dentists, who fly in from as far away as Washington state. They train residents, who are placed in their clinic and employed by NYU Lutheran Dental Medicine in Brooklyn, New York. They also provide work therapy for those in the women’s program at the Foundry.
In this way, the clinic functions as an occupational transition for women in recovery who make up about 75 percent of the clinic’s dental assistants. “I have a teacher, a lawyer, a nurse. I’ve got really high-caliber people that are no longer able to practice law or be a nurse, but still have this fantastic background,” McCracken said. The other 25 percent are typically women from local schools, looking for more clinical experience, he explained.
Jennifer Tucker, lead dental assistant, worked in accounting for years before going through recovery. For work therapy, she was placed at the Foundry’s thrift store for six weeks before she transitioned to the Foundry Dental Center. “I had never done dentistry at all, but low and behold, I love it. The Lord led me here, and I love it,” she said, sitting opposite McCracken in an exam room.
Tucker, who received a full denture and four implants at the clinic, has been working with McCracken for five years. She finds that patients often need a listening ear, something she feels she can provide having been in their shoes, and she believes that her story and the stories of her fellow dental assistants can serve as inspiration.
“Here we are five years out, or three years out, or six months or whatever, and they see that you’re still going, you’re moving forward. You can be compassionate with them. You can relate to them. It really makes a big difference,” she said.
Providing a skill to those in recovery was an unanticipated aspect of the clinic’s ministry, McCracken said. But then again, much of the clinic’s development was unforeseen. Miracle is a word that comes up often in the story as it is told by McCracken.
“You want another little miracle story?” he would ask before delving into a detailed story, such as that of the electrician or the story of the seven dental chairs. The cabinets are yet another.
The original plans for the building called for 200 feet of cabinetry. When a volunteer told him this would cost about $20,000, he said he believed God would provide. The following week, he received a call from a Foundry staff member with news that a truckload of cabinets had been donated at their Cullman location. “When I got there, the guy said, ‘Do you think you’d like the walnut or the brushed maple?’ So not only do we have cabinets, we have our choice of colors,” he said, laughing.
“God called us here, and it was not just me,” he said. “God called that electrician. God called the front desk women from the church and the guy who donated all our cabinets and the guy who donated all our flooring and the volunteers. God wanted a dental clinic in Bessemer.”
As McCracken was walking through the office that morning, a patient at the checkout counter stopped him to give him a hug, flashing a big smile — a smile she didn’t have before undergoing surgery only a few days before.
Back in the conference room, McCracken recalled this moment, explaining, “People out here appreciate it double because they can’t get it anywhere else.”
Then, he added, “As the Bible says, ‘don’t just be hearers of the Word. Be doers of the Word.’”
For more information visit foundrydentalcenter.com.