August 15, 2005

Start: Des Moines, Iowa
Champaign, Illinois
Mileage: 379 miles
Route taken: Interstate 80 to Route 84 to Route 92 to Interstate 74 exit at


        After a day of rest on Sunday, I was ready to get on the Harley and push further east, but I had a couple of obligations I had to attend to.

        The first was another radio interview with San Francisco radio station KNBR. It went pretty well and the link to hear the interview is in the news section of this website.

        It was a cloudless day, but I knew as I got closer to the Illinois/Ohio border it was going to cloud up. I wasn’t even sure if I would get that far.

        Right before Davenport, Iowa, I stopped into the Iowa 80 Truckstop, the world’s largest truckstop.

        It is 217,000 square feet, with 58,000 square feet housing everything from a barbershop, movie theater, restaurant, gift shop and game arcade. The facility is also planned for a 17,000 square foot expansion.

        Up the stairs and sandwiched between the barbershop and the facility offices is Dr. Thomas Roemer. The 44-year-old dentist has been at the truckstop since 1993, giving up his general practice for this location.

        Interstate Dental thrives along Interstate 80 off of exit 284, 15 miles from Davenport, Iowa.

        The dentist is a one-man office, doing cleanings as well as dental work. He even does the paperwork and acts as office manager, emptying the trash and answering the phone.


        And the phone rings regularly. Roemer is one of three known truck stop dentists. The others are in Salt Lake City and Memphis, but they both work with people in the community, while the majority of Roemer’s patients are truckers on the road.

        Roemer, who lives 15 minutes from the truckstop, estimates 90 percent of his business is tooth extractions. Roemer doesn’t take insurance, cash or credit cards only.  Many truckers don’t have dental insurance and the choice of caring for a hurting tooth is often a financial one.

        “It’s either going to cost $100 for me to pull it or 400 to 800 dollars to root canal it. It’s not that they didn’t want to save it, but they don’t have the money.”

        Deborah Bartlett doesn’t have that dilemma. Her tooth is in pain and she wants it out. Bartlett is from Minnesota and she and her husband are driving a load out to California. Before her appointment she was able to take a shower in one of the truck stop’s 24 shower facilities. Roemer laughs when he says he has the world’s biggest waiting room, but it is true. Since there are no appointments, truckers can kill time showering, getting the truck washed or serviced, eating or watching a movie.

        “I always say if you are bored here, you would be bored anywhere,” Roemer said. “I don’t even know if some of the truckers know there is a movie theater here.”

        Freshly showered, Bartlett is in the Roemer’s chair, getting her tooth pulled.

        That is just 12 shy of the doctor’s record.

        “I have had up to 13 extractions on a guy at one time,” Roemer said. “One of these guys I don’t think there was any visible tooth structure above his gum line. They were all down to the gum line and we took them all out.”

        There are no appointments, but truckers will call Roemer’s cell phone from the road and tell them what is hurting and how far from the office.

        Roemer’s schedule is flexible. He tries to be in the office six days a week and is available Sunday if the patient wants to pay the emergency fee he charges.

        The dress for Roemer is as casual as his office hours. He is in blue shorts, with tennis shoes and a red polo shirt, covered by a blue smock. He looks more prepared for a golf outing than pulling teeth.

        “I just enjoy the work that I do out here,” Roemer said. “I enjoy the clients that I have. Granted it’s not as busy, but it’s less stress, less overhead and a little more freedom, though I probably work more hours now because it is walk in. it can be hit and miss.”

        There is often periods of sitting for Roemer, but when he gets a patient he knows they will be grateful.

        “The appreciation factor out here is great,” Roemer said. “I had a guy call me, I took six teeth out, and he called me the next day and he said “Dr. Tom, you are the man, I feel great, I don’t have any pain. Thanks for all the help.” In my regular practice I probably had two people in 12 years call me and thank me.”

        Sometimes truckers get a little agitated when they show up at Roemer’s office.

        “The drivers are all pretty good guys,” he said. “The only time I have a problem is when the guy is standing on the other side of the counter and he is in a lot of pain. I can understand that. That happens very rarely.”

        One patient was so thankful, he sent Roemer a gift.

        “I had one guy send me six or seven sequenced two dollar bills,” Roemer said. “It wasn’t even for the bill. It was just a thank you. That was really neat. I would never see that at my other office.”

        Bartlett is definitely indebted.

        “Thank you very much,” she mumbles through gauze that is in her mouth. “I feel a lot better.”

        Roemer thanks her, puts a hand on her shoulder and shows her out of the room, giving her last-minute instructions. She smiles as she leaves.

        “You wouldn’t wish a toothache on anybody,” Roemer said. “Fortunately I got them where I want them, they are in pain. Anybody who is going to take someone out of pain is going to appreciate them.

        “I have a standing joke out here, I tell them the only thing I want to hurt, and hopefully not to bad, is their wallet,” Roemer said. “If I can get you in and out without causing anymore pain, than I am happy.”

        It was refreshing to see someone in the medical profession who wasn’t after the copay. I know a woman who is a nurse who said the office motto is “Meet em, greet em and street em.”

        I have never been a fan of Western medicine, which seems to want to throw pills at the problem and move on to the next patient. When I worked in a pharmacy we would have people come in and they were actually disappointed if they went and saw their doctor and didn’t get a prescription.

        While I was pondering that I came across Davenport and the crossing for the Mississippi River. The bridge was under construction and I was able to quickly pull Libertad over and get a couple of pictures. It is a majestic body of water and if you are on the interstate, you only get a brief glimpse of it.


        There was an exit just before the Illinois border, so I got off and followed the river down to East Moline.

        State Route 84 parallels the river for about five miles and there are homes and recreation sites along the river banks.

        The town turns to the right and I was able to cross the river again before jumping back onto Interstate 74.

        I needed gas and stopped in a Knoxville, Illinois, about 30 miles from Peoria.

        There I witnessed one of the saddest events I have ever seen.

        It was a couple and their two young daughters. The couple was not together and in separate cars. The father had apparently had the girls for the weekend and in this gas station off the highway an exchange was taking place.

        Only the youngest girl didn’t want to go. She was about 3 and in the back seat crying. The mom stood patiently outside of the car while the father was trying to coax the girl to go with her mom.

        They must have stood there for 15 minutes, not saying more than a couple of brief sentences between the two. The oldest girl was in the mom’s car staring out the window at nothing.

        Finally they got the girl out of the car and she kissed her dad, who didn’t want her to go either, but was a lot more brave about it.

        The two adults started their cars, nodded to each other and went separate directions out of the gas station.

        I filled up the bike, and headed towards the freeway with the image of that little girl in my head. She stuck with me until I stopped for the evening in Champaign.