SAN JOSE -- The line of people who spent the night huddled under blankets stretched around the block behind the convention center early Saturday. They weren't waiting to buy concert tickets or the latest iPhones. They were hoping for something much more personal: root canals, cavity fillings and, if they were really lucky, dentures.

For the first time in San Jose and just the third time in the state, the California Dental Association operated a free dental clinic to anyone willing to wait, marshaling more than 1,700 volunteers -- including 800 dentists, hygienists and lab assistants.

More than 2,000 people, many traveling by BART and bus from the East Bay and beyond, waited for hours on end. Some arrived as early as Thursday evening.

Their swollen jaws, painful grimaces and reluctant smiles gave them away.

"I've been in line since 5 a.m., and I'm not leaving," said Carrie Flores, 49, of San Jose, who was hoping a dentist inside the cavernous tent building behind the San Jose McEnery Convention Center would extract two or three of her back teeth and maybe save another. She's been in so much pain she can't sleep or eat any solid food.

"I have to get in there today," Flores said.

Like all the desperate patients waiting in line -- and millions of other Californians -- Flores has no dental insurance. In 2009, during the height of the state budget crisis, the Legislature cut almost all funding to adult Denti-Cal, which is MediCal's dental program, leaving 3 million low-income adults uninsured. Funding for the California Children's Dental Disease Prevention Program, which provides preventive care in school, was cut at the same time.


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Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and other leading Democrats have vowed to fight this year to restore adult dental care for the poor now that California's budget picture has brightened.

"We can't make a huge impact on the size of the problem, but we hope to help 2,000," said Dr. Ken Wallis from San Jose, who is heading the California Dental Association's "CDA Cares" program, which continues through Sunday. "We want to eliminate some pain."

They did. With 150 reclining dental chairs lined up in the convention center's South Hall, blue-smocked dentists bent over grateful patients. Spaces for X-rays, extractions, fillings and teeth cleanings-- as well as the lab area where new teeth were being made -- were separated by dark blue curtains. The high pitch of buzzing dental drills filled the air.

Eliminating pain and infection was the top priority of the nonprofit group. Often that meant filling cavities or extracting rotten teeth. If a front tooth was in danger, the dental teams tried to fit in a limited root canal.

Lisa Perez, 35, took public transit from Antioch on Friday afternoon to secure a place in line. Her front tooth was chipped, and she needed a filling replaced. "I haven't seen a dentist in five years," Perez said before settling into the chair of Dr. Fella Behyammi, of Mountain View.

A small fraction of people, who either were prescreened by a local clinic or had a particularly extreme case, received new sets of teeth or temporary partials called space plates. Some of the dentists offered their weekend patients reduced-rate follow-ups at their offices.

Linda Brinkman, 53, who lives in a La Selva Beach apartment, had been living a dental nightmare for the past several years. Out of work and without dental insurance for the past seven years, her problem teeth turned black and rotted away. She arrived at the free clinic Saturday morning with nothing but three randomly spaced bottom teeth, the sharp ones, that had pierced and infected her upper gums.

"Three is worse than none," she said. "Isn't it?"

She felt like a freak. "I've been very depressed and hiding out. I haven't wanted to go to the corner store. I haven't wanted to talk to people," Brinkman said. "My kids didn't want their friends to meet me or go to their school. A relationship was out of the question."

On Saturday, Dr. Janice Scott, who came from Stockton to volunteer, gave Brinkman a reason to smile. She fitted her with an upper set of dentures and a lower partial plate. When Brinkman looked at herself in a mirror, she broke down in tears and hugged Scott three separate times.

"I am so grateful, so grateful," said Brinkman, who traveled with a group from a Santa Cruz clinic that had made an impression of her gums. "It is going to be life-changing to me to be able to smile at people. I finally feel hopeful."

The weekend clinic, where dental crews and volunteers work from 5 a.m. to the early evening, costs about $500,000 to run, even with the free labor. Most of the money came in donations from Wells Fargo Advisors, Kaiser Permanente, El Camino Hospital and Delta Dental, along with a number of other groups. Santa Clara County donated $25,000 and the Santa Clara Dental Society donated $10,000. Private donors, mostly people in the dental industry, donated another $180,000.

Late Saturday afternoon, Flores, who was in line at 5 a.m., was still waiting her turn. She had been laid off in December from her job at Mission College teaching nursing assistants but never had insurance there because she worked part-time. She also spent years caring for the elderly.

"I'm angry about all this because I worked so hard my whole life, and I shouldn't be sitting here," Flores said. "I've served my whole life, and I'm just hoping someone can serve me today."

Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409 or follow her on www.Twitter/juliasulek.