“I have a broken tooth, very sharp tooth and it is cutting my tongue. I am not able to eat or talk due to the pain and sore on my tongue. I have no money or insurance,” I stated, my mouth screaming from the torment”


It was January of 2018 and the ground was shrouded in layers of lace-like snowflakes while frost hugged the window panes of the homeless shelter in Joliet, Illinois. It was my first day in the facility, and after a night of walking under the orange fluorescence of street lights dotting the streets, I could barely keep my eyes open. As I arose from my comatose slumber, I woke to the persistent, familiar agony that infiltrated my mouth all throughout the day. Every time I moved my tongue, it felt as if a razor was incising the piece of flesh, slowly cutting away small strips of the muscle. This excruciating pain prevented me from doing simple tasks, such as talking and eating; for I would rather stay silent and starve rather than have my tongue pierced incessantly.

When I got out of bed, the building was buzzing with energy from the workers frantically running about and changing bed sheets, to the shelters’ inhabitants walking around the facility and conversing with one another. I looked at the clock resting on the wall and it 2:54 pm, too late for breakfast and lunch, way too early for dinner. As I left my room, walking down the hallway, I cradled the right side of face, foolishly expecting to subdue the pain in my mouth.Turning the corner, I spotted a woman carrying fresh, clean blankets.

“Are okay sir?” she asked with a furrowed brow that emphasized her concern.

Not wanting to speak due to the pain, I pointed at the right side of my mouth, hoping that my gestures would communicate the extreme discomfort I was in.

“You have a toothache,” she confirmed–although that term was an extreme understatement. “Well,” she started, “ today happens to be your lucky day. There’s a mobile dentist in front of the building. They perform check-ups and procedures for a fee that’s little to nothing. I think they leave at 3:00 pm so if you’re in a lot of pain, you’d better hurry and go check it out.” I gave the woman the tiniest of smiles before I sped walked past her and towards metal double doors at the front of building.

As I stepped into the van, I was greeted by two women who look as if they were in the process of putting all of their supplies away.

“Are you done for the day?” I asked, trying to say the smallest amount of words as possible.

They briefly glanced at one another, then smiled back at me, “How can I help you,” asked one woman whose name tag read Linda.

“I have a broken tooth, very sharp tooth and it is cutting my tongue. I am not able to eat or talk due to the pain and sore on my tongue. I have no money or insurance,” I stated, my mouth screaming from the torment. Even though they appeared to be getting ready to leave, Linda gestured towards the chair, and cheerfully told me to have a seat.

While in the chair, I felt waves of goosebumps wash over my skin. My mind started racing as I imaging them puncturing my gums with a sword-like needle then yanking my tooth from its resting place. Nevertheless, I forced myself to think of a life, post-pain; a life where I could speak freely and devour a meal in peace.

Once they numbed my gums, which was a lot less painful that I expected, Linda proceeded to work on removing the tooth. Due to the anesthesia, I only felt slight pressure–which I was very happy about–and barely even noticed the tooth had been removed until Linda showed it to me, held between a pair of glistening forceps. She put the tooth in my hand and as I stared at its jagged edges, I was overcome with relief that the object worsening my quality of life no longer possessed that power. Simultaneously, I was excited to have a normal life. My eyes welled with tears, spilling over the cliff of eyelids. The dentists looked at me with a sense of satisfaction and happiness, the faces baring large grins after putting me out of my misery.

“Thank you” I said as I grabbed their hands and held them tightly until their flesh turned ghostly pale.

“You’re very welcome,” Sangita, the other dentist, said enthusiastically.

I stood up from the chair and made my way towards the door. Upon opening it, I was met by the orange hue of the sun falling below the horizon, dutifully retreating early during this winter month. As I headed back to the entrance of the shelter, dainty snowflakes sashayed from the wintry clouds. I lifted my head and stuck out my tongue, letting each chilling flake find a home on my tongue until it melted into nothingness. I opened the door to the shelter and smiled as the aroma of mashed potatoes, roasted garlic, and baked chicken filled my nostrils; all of which I now had the opportunity to consume.


Zakiya Cowan, United Way of Will County Creative Writing Intern

Original Story:

The Will County Community Health Center Mobile Dental program was launched in October of 2011. Since then, this program has reached to underserved, under privileged and uninsured population. There are so many heart touching stories but this one I will not forget.

One cold wintery snowy day in January 2018, Mobile unit was scheduled at Morning Star Mission, homeless shelter in Joliet. Many patients were scheduled and seen. At approximately 3:00 PM, as we were wrapping up the mobile unit for the day, one middle aged man walked in.

Linda, our dedicated dental assistant and driver for the mobile unit asked, “How can I help you”?

The man replied with distressed voice and difficulty speaking, “I have a broken, very sharp tooth and it is cutting my tongue. I am not able to eat or talk due to the pain and sore on my tongue.” Linda looked at me, and even though it was getting late she could not tell him that we are done for the day.

We decided to take care of this patient. She quickly had the patient complete the registration paperwork and seated him in the chair for an x-ray. The patient needed that tooth extracted to get some relief. Without any second thought, we got the patient ready for the extraction and extracted the tooth. Tears rolled out of patient’s eyes with gratitude and appreciation.

The patient had no insurance or money to take care of his dental problem. For weeks, patient had been suffering. The United way grant made it possible for us to treat that patient without any charge and put an end to his debilitating dental problem.

The Will County Community Health center is grateful for United Way support and says ‘Thank you for making the difference in our community’!
Dr. Sangita Garg