ROCHESTER — Curtis Cole and his family always seemed happy, with one life-debilitating roadblock that never went away until the day Curtis died at age 42 — his teeth.
It was beyond heartbreaking to see Curtis' family and friends gathered at Cold Springs Cemetery for his funeral Sunday, June 12. There had always been an air of innocence about Curtis, and you just knew his heart was in the right place. He loved Kristina Foster, his childhood sweetheart and life partner of more than two decades, and their three daughters, Joselyn, 20, Isabella, 17, and Mariah, 3. His mother, Mary Jewell, was a huge part of all their lives.
"We were together for over 24 years," Foster said. "We never got married but we had three beautiful daughters together, and we had a lot of love in our family."
Curtis was laid to rest in the same cemetery where his grandmother, Pina Pierce, is interred. The small graveside service was crowded. Curtis was loved.
We met Curtis last year, and he agreed to be the focal point for an in-depth story about dental care in New Hampshire, or, more accurately, the lack of dental care for people who are uninsured, low income or homeless. Dental care is out of reach for many working people who have insurance that is inadequate, too.
Curtis graciously allowed us to come into his life, as journalists, along with his family. He had been suffering for years with teeth that ached and damaged his days, dating back to problems that started after injuries he sustained in a car accident at age 28. His pain affected his family life, as he often couldn’t participate in meals or events. He couldn’t eat normal food. He would cook dinner for his family, then go lie down due to the agony. He had a really hard time sleeping.
It is tragic Curtis died just as he seemed on the verge of a new and improved life. Through the help of Medicaid, his teeth had been extracted. And through a generous, anonymous donation from a person who read about Curtis' struggles on Seacoastonline, there was money in place for the dentures he needed.
Progress has been made, too, on legislation in New Hampshire to help people like Curtis.
It should have been a happy ending.
Return to good health seemed within reach
On Sept. 28, 2021, Curtis went to Goodwin Community Health, and we were there to document the removal of his teeth. He agreed to be in photos and videos and explain his experience, advocating for the importance of access to dental care for everyone regardless of income.
"People look at you differently when you have bad teeth," he said. "Plus, it would be great to be able to sleep again, to eat what I want, to be free of pain."
We visited Curtis again the day before he was getting the rest of his teeth pulled, April 5, 2022. He was taking care of his youngest child, Mariah, as usual, and he posed for some portraits on the couch. His instructions were to wait to heal, and the next step would be dentures.
It never happened. Curtis got an infection and ended up at Frisbie Memorial Hospital. Septic shock and subsequent cardiac arrest ended his life, according to his family. He died on Monday, May 30, Memorial Day.
Kristina, the love of his life, said Curtis had been agitated in the days before his death.
"I told him on that Saturday he did not look good, that he looked like hell and he needed to go to the emergency room. He resisted and then said he would go the next day. By Saturday night, he was delirious. He was in the bathroom and his knees gave out. I had to help him to bed. When I woke up, he was back in the bathroom, yelling my name. He was on the floor. I tried to help him up but couldn't. We called the ambulance."
"He had been so sick and we wanted him to go to the hospital," said Jewell, his mother.
Kristina followed the ambulance to the Frisbie Memorial Hospital and was told she couldn't see him right away.
"I stayed for hours, in my pajamas, and when they still wouldn't let me see him, I went home to change," she said. "His mother came. Curtis was sedated and because of COVID only one of us could go in at a time. He had a 104-degree temperature and his blood sugar was low. ... They said there was bad infection in his gums. We kept telling Curtis he was a fighter — he could do this."
Kristina said she expected Curtis to be taken off sedation Monday, May 30, the day his fight ended. At 3 a.m., the hospital called to say Curtis was going downhill.
"His kidneys were slowing down," Kristina said. "He went into cardiac arrest."
Goodwin Community Health cannot comment on Curtis' dental care due to privacy laws. "We are saddened to hear the news," said Laura Drolet, a spokesperson. "We will be reaching out to the family."
The anonymous donor who had offered to pay for dentures for Curtis was shocked when she was told about his death. Years ago, when she didn't have enough money or adequate insurance, she needed dental care and friends helped raise money. She wanted to "pay that forward" with Curtis. She sent her condolences to Curtis' family, adding she hopes the funds she donated can be used to help someone else in Curtis' situation before it is too late.
Curtis was cremated. Jewell said the Salvation Army helped the family get a burial plot, and hospice chaplain the Rev. Joe Setzer performed the service.
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New Hampshire legislation could help people like Curtis Cole
State Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, D-Nashua, has been fighting for years to get an adult dental benefit added to New Hampshire's Medicaid program. Currently Medicaid dental insurance covers only emergency care such as extractions. Senate Bill 422 and House Bill 103 passed and were heading to Gov. Chris Sununu. They would provide a preventative dental care benefit to about 100,000 state residents.
Rosenwald was aware of Curtis' story.
"Oh that’s so sad," Rosenwald said. "What a waste of a young life and so devastating for his family. People just don’t realize how critical oral health is."
Sununu vetoed similar legislation in the past over funding concerns. He has indicated he supports this year's version and was expected to sign the legislation Friday, July 1.
"Expanding coverage to include dental benefits for those on Medicaid is something I have long supported, but challenged the legislature to do so in a way where the costs are sustainable and transparent," Sununu said in a prepared statement. "I’m grateful for their work this session achieving those goals and look forward to signing the bill."
People like Curtis are the reason the legislation is needed.
Saying goodbye much too soon
Curtis' two oldest daughters, Joselyn and Isabella Cole, shed tears at the funeral while standing next to their mom, Kristina. They all wore black and used white tissues to dab the tears. It was hot and there was a big crowd for Curtis, half standing beneath trees that offered shade.
We think Curtis would have been pleased to see the service but perhaps embarrassed all the attention was for him.
He was born Aug. 20, 1979 and died May 30, 2022. His time here was too short, but he made a difference.
This article originally appeared on Fosters Daily Democrat: Curtis Cole deserved better ending to his struggle with dental care