HUNTINGTON - Chris Smith's teeth started to fall out one by one, weeks after his mouth slammed into his car's steering wheel during an accident seven years ago in Wayne County.
At one point, Smith said, he had a mouthful of abscesses and most of his teeth had to be pulled. By his 26th birthday, he had only six teeth left.
"My whole face has dropped," Smith said. "I'm ashamed to smile. I'm one of the easiest people to get along with, but I don't look that way because I haven't smiled."
That's about to change.
Smith was fitted for a free denture on a recent morning at Harmony House, a downtown Huntington day shelter.
Harmony House has been providing free dental services - cleanings, fillings and extractions - to people who cannot afford them since 1989. The United Way of River Cities in Huntington picks up the cost of full and partial dentures for patients.
Nearly all of the men and women who come to the day shelter don't have Medicaid, private health insurance or money to pay for health care.
Some have been homeless for more than 10 years, said Jan Wilson, a nurse at Harmony House. Patients include recovering drug addicts, former prisoners and people with mental illness.
"A lot of folks here have bigger issues than plaque on their teeth," Wilson said. "So many of our clients have terrible teeth. Sometimes you have to take all of their teeth out."
Betty McKenzie, 43, stopped at Harmony House for a check-up one morning last month after her upper denture started to irritate her gums in several places. She received the free denture at the day shelter last August. McKenzie told the clinic's dentist, Dr. Dan Brody, that a car had hit her while she was riding her bike in downtown Huntington the previous week.
Brody used a drill to buff out the denture's rough spots. It slid back into McKenzie's mouth like a glove.
"It has improved my smile, my appearance, my self-esteem about myself," McKenzie said. "I can look at myself in the mirror and see that my mouth isn't drawn down."
Many of Harmony House's clients come from rural parts of Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia. Some just stop by to watch television and wash clothes. They receive help in finding a place to stay.
"Feet and teeth. That's the problem with the homeless population," said John Mendez, director for Harmony House and the Cabell-Huntington Coalition for the Homeless. "It's basic human needs we're dealing with here. No one advocates for this population. Who else is going to help them out?"
Brody, a dentist paid through Huntington-based nonprofit healthcare provider Valley Health, has worked at Harmony House for 18 years.
On this morning, Brody slid wax models of a full upper denture and partial lower denture into Smith's mouth, and then asked Smith to smile.
"You OK with the color, size and shape?" Brody asked.
Smith held up a mirror.
"It feels like they're hitting on both sides," he said.
"That's going to work out fine, partner," Brody said.
"It feels awkward smiling with teeth," said Smith. "I'm used to smiling with gums."
Smith, who recently secured a job running a crane at a Huntington steel mill, said he appreciated the free dental care at Harmony House.
He did have one disappointment: He couldn't leave with a new set of dentures. Brody had to send the wax models back to a lab in Charleston. Smith would have to wait at least a week for a permanent acrylic pair of dentures.
"I thought I could walk out today with them," Smith said. "The shape. The size. They look like my original teeth. He even added a slight overbite."
To contact staff writer Eric Eyre, use e-mail or call 348-4869. Eyre's coverage of oral health is being supported by a Kaiser Media Fellowship in Health.