Catholic dentist reflects on 18 years of serving poor in LA


Dr. Rich Meehan asks, "Did you want to see it?" about the molar he's just extracted. His voice is matter-of-fact husky but at the same time compassionate over the Supremes' golden oldie coming from a radio.

"Um hum," says Tabia Salimu.

Meehan chuckles.

Now the 47-year-old woman is laughing, too. "It's the only tooth I've got, yeah." She shows him the sports section of the Los Angeles Times with a story about her 17-year-old son Yohance, a defensive end at Crenshaw High school with a 3.8 grade-point average, and says he has his sights set on going to the Air Force Academy.

"You're not proud or anything?" quips the dentist. "How many at home?"

"I've got three at home now. We're at the shelter. They hate when I call it home."

"I'll wrap the tooth up." And Meehan, 76, glances down at the foam ball his patient is squeezing. "Boy, you getting ready to strangle somebody?"

This breaks her up again. "Pain management tool."

"Now a couple things." He explains how she can't rinse her mouth out or brush her teeth on that side today because there are deep holes where the tooth's roots were, which need to form a "nice blood clot." Also, he says, she should eat and drink on the other side. Then he gives her some pressure bandages and tells how to put one back where her molar was and to bite down to help stop the bleeding.

"I've been eating on this side for about two weeks now because the pain has been so bad."

"So wait till this heals up," he says, adding, "Well, that's about it. Thanks for being so patient. I know you had a long wait."

"Well worth it!" she exclaims with a thumbs up, stepping down from the ancient dental chair patched with tape.

Bare-bones practice

The dentist from the South Bay has been driving down to the Los Angeles Catholic Worker's dental clinic at Sixth and Gladys once a week for 18 straight years. He started while he still had a thriving practice in Torrance and just continued after he retired 12 years ago. It's a bare-bones operation tucked back of "The Hippie Kitchen" soup kitchen and St. Francis Peace Garden with picnic tables among tall palms and leafy shade trees. The clinic is on the bottom floor of a nondescript cinder-block two-story with a multi-color mosaic of four big daisies on the front.

Meehan usually sees at least eight patients from 9 a.m. until about two o'clock in the afternoon every Friday. "We either do extractions, cleanings or fillings – and that's it," he reports. "We don't do anything real heroic. If it's a difficult extraction, like an impacted wisdom tooth, I refer them to County-USC Medical Center. They have some really good oral surgeon residents there. For dentures, they go to the Union Rescue Mission."

Most of his patients are locals. They're either homeless or live in nearby SRO (Single Room Occupancy) cheap hotels. But some come from far away, like Tabia Salimu, who took two buses and the Red Line train, a three-hour trip, to get here from a family shelter in North Hollywood, where she's been living for almost two years. The need for dental care is so great on Skid Row that his patients are picked days before by a lottery.

"With extractions, I proceed slowly so that we can get it nice and loose," the former USC dental school faculty member points out. "I mean, I try not to be aggressive. I want to be as gentle as I can, but yet you still have to get the tooth out. But she was a great patient, very cooperative. And most of them are."

The woman says the dentist's ongoing chatter and outgoing manner made the procedure tolerable. "He was excellent, excellent," declares Salimu. "His talking was wonderful 'cause it was such a distraction. Just what I needed. God bless him. I had been in excruciating pain. So I feel relieved that it's out.

"But I've been coming to The Hippie Kitchen for years," she notes "That's why I can't believe I didn't know about him. And I'm just so saddened to learn that when he leaves the clinic might close down. Dang! That's a shame 'cause it's much needed. That's sad."

Treating people like people

The folks who work with Meehan on Fridays feel the same way. Theo Kayser, a member of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker community, has acted as Meehan's makeshift "dental assistant," handing him instruments when he's working on a patient and sterilizing them after. The 20-year-old from St. Louis was a patient himself today, having had a cavity filled and his teeth cleaned.

"I think the work that he's done for us here is just a blessing, you know, and just a really generous thing," Kayser says. "He shows an interest in a patient. He'll ask them where they're staying: Do you have an apartment or a room? Are you from L.A.? He's really sincere. He just treats the people like people.

"Just the fact that he comes down here at all is really like the biggest thing. So we're really going to miss him, and I don't know what we're going to do without him. They've tried to get other dentists and it's never worked out. If God want us to have another dentist, he'll send us one. But I'm sure he won't be like Rich."

Ann Boden, a volunteer from Sylmar, often works the reception counter at the dental clinic on Fridays, handing out aspirin, anti-acids, vitamins and feminine products. She points out that all members of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker are patients of Meehan, so they're losing their dentist, too.

"Oh, he's wonderful. The patients love him," she says. "And he's filling a real need. For many of the people who come here, it's the only dental work they get. Sometimes we have 18 patients vying for eight spots. He could probably work fulltime here and still have patients waiting for him."

Jesse Lewis, 61, is starting his 11th year as a member of the local Catholic Worker community. "Well, it breaks my heart for real that he's leaving," he says, after a recent shift at the clinic. "We'll miss him. It's going to hurt until we get another dentist, but then it'll still be hurting because he's not Rich. Most of the people that Rich's worked on over and over, they love him. So, basically, he's just going to be missed by everybody really strongly."

'I love coming down here'

"It's been a good run – 18 years," Rich Meehan says, sitting outside at the nearby Catch 22 Seafood Restaurant after one of his final busy Fridays at the dental clinic. "I love coming down here. I like being associated with the poor. I mean, not to be overly spiritual, but if you read the Bible the Lord talked about the poor all the time. And I'm not really poor, but I want to help the poor. I feel close to them and identify with them. And it's very fulfilling working with them and helping them in the way that I can."

The retired dentist, who had his own practice for three decades, feels at peace with his decision. He and Pat have been married 48 years, raising four daughters and two sons to be caring, altruistic adults who live out their Catholic faith. But Pat's Alzheimer's Disease is progressing now, making her less stable on her feet. Recently she fell. And even though his wife has caregivers during the day and evening, it got him thinking, "What if she falls again and I'm 30 miles away?"

The St. John Fisher parishioner knows he'll miss practicing every week on Skid Row. Early on he fell in love with the Catholic Workers. "They espouse everything that I believe in as far as their social justice basis of Dorothy Day's movement," he says. "One of the things I really stress with my children is borrowed from (Catholic Worker cofounder) Peter Maurin's often quoted phrase: 'We must live more simply, so other people can simply live.'

"And we need to help those who are less fortunate than we are," he adds. "Every once in awhile I'll say to the kids, 'Have you gone through your closets lately? Because those clothes that you aren't wearing don't belong to you. They belong to the poor.' I just think serving the poor is a calling."

Meehan does this in other ways besides fixing indigent strangers' teeth. He serves on the board of St. Lawrence of Brindisi School in Watts and belongs to the Friends of St. Lawrence, a group that raises money for the inner-city school. He also supports another parochial school in Watts, San Miguel. At both places, the Meehans sponsor scholarships for low-income students to go on to Catholic high schools. But by working part time at a dentist's office closer to home, he also plans to take on more charity cases referred to him in the South Bay.

The grandfather of 17, with two more on the way, says he was "primed" to work with the poor by the examples of Mother Teresa, who he met while being the Missionary Brothers of Charity's dentist in Los Angeles, by Father Greg Boyle and his work with gang members, by actor-activist Martin Sheen and, especially, by longtime close friend Father Peter Banks, the former pastor of St. Lawrence of Brindisi Parish. Catholic Workers Jeff Dietrich and Catherine Morris have also been major life influences.

"People say, 'It's great that you're down there working on Skid Row,' and I say, 'Yeah, but I'm only there one day a week,'" he points out. "It's the Catholic Workers who are there all the time and have been for over 30 years. Those are the people that I admire and inspire me by their words and actions."

Looking back on 18 years of plying his dental trade on Skid Row, he says there's no doubt the pleasures have greatly outnumbered the frustrations.

"It's like anything that you volunteer for – there are days when you get disillusioned and you're just tired and barely make it home in time," Meehan explains. "Or there are stresses when you have difficult patients who are hypersensitive and difficult to work with. But you made a commitment, so you come down because you said you would.

"But the joys were far bigger," he stresses, "not even close. But now I need to focus on my wife."

Printed with permission from the Tidings Online, newspaper for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

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