First, the cavities began to pile up, then came the infections and abscesses.
Elise Lydon knew she was experiencing major dental issues. But even with a discount, an oral surgeon said it would cost $1,800 to fix her teeth, which was much more than she could afford.
As an adult without dental insurance and no other means to pay for costly care, Lydon had little hope of getting the treatment she needed. That's when a good friend from Chattanooga Valley Presbyterian Church began searching for options.
"I started getting more and more cavities due to the medications prescribed to me - that happens to a lot of people - and having so many abscesses, she wanted to find what she could do for me," Lydon said. "The abscesses would come closer and closer together, so something really needed to be done."
Lydon's friend spoke to her dentist, who knew about a new nonprofit clinic for underserved patients opening in Chattanooga called Revive Dental. The clinic caters to people without dental insurance and is able to keep costs low through grants from local foundations, which helped secure and equip the building at 1212 Dodds Ave., and dentists who volunteer their services.
"There're just a lot of people out there that can't afford regular care with a dentist, and we're able to help some of those folks," Revive co-founder Dr. Michael McCracken said. "All of our labs, bills and our dental supplies and things have to be paid for, so we do have to charge small fees. But an extraction in our office is around $60, whereas another dental office might charge $150."
Costs are even lower for people who are referred by local nonprofit partners or those recovering from substance use disorders.
"We have a real heart for folks that are really working hard to make better decisions and what a tough road that is, and so we're here to help them with their dental care," he said.
McCracken, a dentist who's originally from Chattanooga, left his job as a full-time professor at the University of Alabama School of Dentistry to found his first nonprofit dental clinic in Bessemer, Alabama, in 2011. Though he still teaches part time and helps run the original clinic, McCracken said he felt called to return to his hometown and start a clinic in Chattanooga.
While there's great need for affordable dental services across America, he said the need is especially high in Alabama and Tennessee, which are two of only three states whose Medicaid programs provide no adult dental coverage.
Dr. Leigh Kuyrkendall, a dentist based in Lookout Mountain and Revive's other co-founder, volunteers at Revive and said that the Federally Qualified Health Center on Dodson Avenue has a dental clinic that also provides low-cost services, but many more similar dental clinics in the area are needed.
Some patients have gone decades without seeing a dentist or have never been, which makes it hard for them to get ahead, she said.
"They can't get the treatment, so a lot of times they end up cycling through the ER," she said."Sometimes it's one tooth that causes their face to swell and antibiotics can help, but a lot of times the tooth just needs to be extracted, and that's what we're doing for $60 at Revive."
People who are working to overcome substance use disorders are some of those most in need of low-cost dental care, because they rarely have jobs or dental insurance and often neglect oral hygiene.
Micah Andrews, CEO of The Foundry Ministries - a long-term residential recovery program in Bessemer, Alabama - said roughly 75-97% of people who come through the program need some kind of dentistry, and at least 25-35% need major work.
"Probably the lowest priority when someone is battling addiction is their oral health," Andrews said. "You add that to the mix with some of the drugs - like meth, specifically - that deteriorate the teeth and gums, and it can quickly escalate to where someone who has a beautiful smile has zero teeth."
For those in recovery, the condition of their teeth can be what holds them back from starting a new life.
"You've overcome one of the biggest obstacles in your entire life and you're a year clean, but you can only get a menial job, because no one wants you working in their office if you don't have any teeth," Andrews said. "That's what makes the clinics [like Revive] so critical to that population dental care literally raises the standard of their living and the possibility of true, long-term recovery."
Revive is able to handle most cases of general dentistry including fillings, extractions, implants and dentures.
Since opening in 2022, the clinic has treated roughly 200 patients, but McCracken said the clinic will be able to take on more patients soon as it continues to add new dentists.
With financial backing from the church, Lydon was able to become Revive's first patient.
"I'm truly blessed. My good friend made sure it got done, and they are a great group at that clinic," Lydon said.
After a total of six appointments, Lydon was fitted for new dentures Wednesday. She'll need to take it slow at first, but she said she's excited to eat solid food again and to have found a permanent dental home.
"It's very important, dental health, because it can affect the rest of you," she said. "It's been a long road, but I see the teeth at the end of the tunnel."