Health care as arena sport, at Seattle Center all weekend. There are rows and rows of dentists treating patients here.
Health care as arena sport, at Seattle Center all weekend. There are rows and rows of dentists treating patients here. All images JG

Thursday morning, Roberta Gregory, the legendary feminist comics artist, stood high in the stands at KeyArena and looked down on the floor. This is where the athletes play and the rock stars rock, but on this day it was a vast dental clinic that looked like a scene from the days after Hurricane Katrina. This time, the disaster is the American health care system.

Seattle/King County Clinic is a four-day, pop-up medical center that takes place at KeyArena once a year; this is its third year. The clinic is open through Sunday.

The clinic colonizes every nook. X-ray machines and blood labs are set up inside the expensive corporate box suites. Front-row seats become waiting rooms for the dentist. The kiosk where you can get cinnamon almonds and beer is now an information booth. Sinfire, the whisky bar, and Grill (206), the counter where you can buy Bottomless Popcorn for $7, are closed but Grill (206) is where you go to get immunizations, and eye doctors are set up near Sinfire. You can get gynecological exams, prenatal care, ultrasounds, mammograms, foot care, chiropractic, acupuncture. If you want to get insurance and aren't sure how, social workers are there to set you up.

A corporate suite thats now a blood lab.
A corporate suite that's now a blood lab.

The clinic is available to anyone and is free. You don't have to provide ID, you just show up. All the doctors, nurses, assistants, technicians, translators, and patient escorts are volunteers. (I spotted City Council member Sally Bagshaw anonymously helping people find where to go.) Seattle Center—serious thank you to Seattle Center Foundation—raises money and rallies resources from dozens of sponsors and partners, including Public Health-Seattle & King County, to get masses of equipment on site, plus food and water for the waiting patients, in addition to coordinating the care.

That's the story of the clinic, which is as radical a display of community as I've ever seen in my life.

Now for the story of Roberta Gregory, the comics artist. She did not come to the clinic as a patient. She came as an artist. She is one of a dozen local cartoonists attending the clinic to do interviews with patients about why they're there. The artists will write and draw their stories, to be used later to promote public health.

Roberta Gregory at work next to the mobile dental clinic parked down where the basketball players run onto the court.
Roberta Gregory at work next to the mobile dental clinic parked down where the basketball players run onto the court.

This year is the first time the clinic has an art component, and it's a brilliant idea that came from Meredith Li-Vollmer. Li-Vollmer is a public health outreach worker for the county who also happens to be part of Comics Fever, a group of people in Seattle interested in the interaction between comics and healthcare. (For seven years there's been an annual international conference on the subject, Graphic Medicine, which is scheduled to be in Seattle in 2017.)

Meredith Li-Vollmer, the public health worker and comics fan/artist who thought up the idea of comics artists working as patient storytellers at the Seattle/King County Clinic.
Meredith Li-Vollmer, the public health worker and comics fan/artist who thought up the idea of comics artists working as patient storytellers at the Seattle/King County Clinic.

By the time Gregory arrived for her shift as a volunteer journalist artist, Li-Vollmer had already given an introductory tour of the hive-like arena to the other two artists volunteering that day, the also noteworthy Eroyn Franklin and E.T. Russian (who has an exhibition closing Friday night with a public party).

Gregory came late because of a dental emergency, it turned out. Thursday morning, one of her crowns snapped off her tooth and she'd been trying to make an appointment about it and calculate the costs. Despite her outsize success in her artistic field, Gregory worked for many years as a janitor at this very arena, as well as at McCaw Hall, in order to be able to support herself and get health care. Today she is retired, only working part-time as a theater usher, and she has Obamacare insurance. It doesn't cover much in dental, leaving her underinsured. She already lost one crown this year, and she had to raid her IRA for the $1,400 to replace it, she said.

Looking out over all the dentists and patients in the arena, she began to wonder whether she should be down there for reasons other than art.

Dannyail, Cristal, her brother, and behind them, Grandma Gloria. Everybody came to wait in line for the clinic at 3:45 am.
Dannyail, Cristal, her brother, and behind them, Grandma Gloria. Everybody came to wait in line for the clinic at 3:45 am.

The first patient Gregory approached was sitting in a waiting area near concessions with a young girl. They were mother and daughter and didn't need their names changed; they were happy to comply with Gregory. The girl especially wanted to tell Gregory that she was going to get her first pair of glasses, and that she needed glasses because, like Gregory, she is an artist.

Dannyail, the mother, and Cristal, the 8-year-old daughter, had both gone previously to an eye doctor on public assistance insurance. The eye doctor told Dannyail that her new glasses would cost $850. "I said, 'I don't have $850. That's more than half my rent,'" Dannyail told Gregory.

The eye doctor also said Cristal didn't need glasses, but for months afterward the girl kept running into walls and seeing double. Her mother and grandmother knew she needed glasses—and at the clinic, the eye doctor they saw confirmed it. Now, at 1 pm, they were just waiting to pick up their glasses before they could return home to Renton. They had arrived to get in line at 3:45 in the morning.

Artist E.T. Russian knows the ins and outs of the health care system. At KeyArena Thursday, where Russian was documenting patients stories, they also shared their own experiences formerly on Medicaid and now working as a physical therapist at UW.
Artist E.T. Russian knows the ins and outs of the health care system. At KeyArena Thursday, where Russian was documenting patients stories, they also shared their own experiences formerly on Medicaid and now working as a physical therapist at UW.

Dannyail's son and husband were also there. Her husband hadn't gone to the dentist in more than a decade. (That puts him in the company of the 10 percent of clinic patients last year for whom that was true—dental and vision services are the most popular at the clinic.) He was in the arena, getting extractions done, while his family waited for glasses.

Gloria, Dannyail's husband's mother, had been the one to tell Dannyail about the clinic in the first place. Dannyail's response had been, "Are you sure it's free? Nothing is ever free." "This is free," Gloria had said.

The reason Gloria knew is that she was at the clinic last year. She had come for a second opinion about chronic mouth pain. Without real dental or vision coverage on Medicare (the public plan that covers seniors), she had trouble getting a dentist to listen to her when she insisted the pain was not caused by her dentures.

At the clinic, "You guys found mouth cancer on me last year and saved me!" Gloria erupted. "All praise! I'm coming back Sunday to volunteer!"

She'd had radiation and is now in remission, she said.

Like many people at the clinic Thursday, Gloria supposedly has health insurance. But many doctors and hospitals don't take the vouchers. Or the patients feel like the doctors aren't thorough. At the clinic, knowing these patients haven't had a lot of attention, "they may understand to ask a few more questions, pry a little more to see what's going on," Gregory said, and Gloria agreed.

Gregory left Dannyail with an artist's pencil for Cristal.

"What a story," Gregory said, walking away.

These medical workers prepare replacement teeth and dental fixtures for patients inside the arena.
These medical workers prepare replacement teeth and dental fixtures for patients inside the arena.

I was about to part with Gregory, so I asked her whether she was considering coming back later this weekend to get her own tooth fixed for free.

"I really have to think about it," she said. She was worried that other people needed the help more, since she does have insurance, even though it is basically meaningless when it comes to her teeth.

Later, by phone, I asked Li-Vollmer about Gregory. Li-Vollmer told me that about 4,000 people were treated at last year's health clinic, and they ran the gamut. Some had the means to pay for insurance, but language barriers kept them from understanding the system. Others were experiencing homelessness. Some came from as far away as Wyoming and Montana. The fact is that millions of people are uninsured in America, and millions more still are underinsured. Inadequate health care is not an outlier.

"Oh wow, yes," Li-Vollmer said. "The clinic is for [Gregory], too. It's for everyone. It sounds like she is underinsured, which is the case for so many people, and that's part of what we are trying to address by telling these stories."

If Gregory does go to the clinic to get her crown replaced this weekend, and I hope she does, then I also hope another artist is there to document yet another case of an American found guilty of having teeth.