Update, Dec. 17, 2019: Federal prosecutors are currently investigating the subject of this story, Deborah Laughlin, for fraud related to the disaster aid she received after the Camp Fire. They say she was in jail during the time the Camp Fire started, which would render her evacuation story to CapRadio false. Read more about the allegations here. CapRadio will continue to monitor the Laughlin case.
Deborah Laughlin was having a rough time even before she lost everything in the Paradise fire.
The 63-year-old had been in and out of the hospital over the past year, sorting out colon problems and a leukemia diagnosis. Now, she’s been in three different evacuation shelters since the fire started.
“I’m a mess,” Laughlin said while standing outside Bidwell Junior High School in Chico, which was a temporary evacuation shelter just after the fire. “I’m just trying to find a place to live.”
Thousands of people who escaped the Paradise fire last month didn’t just lose their homes. They lost vehicles, jobs, and sentimental items that can’t be replaced. And some like Laughlin are still struggling just to replace basic medical supplies — like dentures.
When a thump at Laughlin’s door awoke her the morning of the Camp Fire, she didn’t even have time to grab her false teeth.
“I ran out when everybody said, ‘You gotta evacuate! You gotta go now!’” she recalled. “My teeth were in the bowl soaking.”
Amid the chaos in the weeks after the fire, Laughlin has had to make time to see the dentist to replace her top dentures. She likely won’t have to pay anything for them, because she has Denti-Cal insurance. But she’ll have to wait at least six more weeks until they’re ready, she says.
Meantime, Laughlin has to be selective about what she puts on her plate, because it’s difficult for her to chew.
“I’ve been eating basically whatever I can eat that’s soft, and cup of noodles and stuff like that,” she said.
Officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency say it’s common for evacuees to lose essential medical equipment such as dentures, oxygen tanks and wheelchairs. FEMA says it’s helped Camp Fire evacuees find walkers, canes, bath chairs, hearing aids and eye glasses through other organizations, and can help pay for dental and medical items not covered by insurance.
Dental experts say even someone with private dental insurance can pay hundreds of dollars out-of-pocket to replace their teeth, and patients may wait up to two months for them.
People affected by the Camp Fire have turned to a Facebook group called “Paradise Fire Adopt a Family” to ask for help replacing false teeth.
People miles away have read their cries for help, like Theresa Murphy, an office manager at Elk Grove Dental Group and Orthodontics. Murphy saw a post on Facebook by someone looking for support to find new dentures for their grandma.
When Murphy proposed her Elk Grove dental practice start giving Camp Fire evacuees dentures for free, she said everyone in the office was immediately on board. Murphy says they’re now working to provide nine evacuees new teeth, and they’ve been touched by the gift.
She told the story of one patient: “They didn’t realize everything was free. They said, ‘How much is this going to cost?’ And I said ‘Well, nothing. There’s no cost to you.’ .… And [they] started crying on the other line.”
The Elk Grove Dental Group is only helping evacuees with dentures until the end of December, and patients have to prove that they’re from the Paradise area.
A spokesperson with the California Department of Health Care Services, the administrative agency that oversees Denti-Cal, says the usual authorization rules for dentures have been changed for beneficiaries affected by wildfires, in order to get them out more quickly.
While Laughlin waits for her new dentures, she says she’s trying to find a long-term place to live, somewhere stable where she can recover from the fire and get healthy, too.
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