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Giving veterans smiles

Dentists donate free dental care to thousands who serve U.S. military

December 08, 2015

By Kimber Solana

Photo of Dr. Deryck Pham with his dental team and volunteers
Team effort: Dr. Deryck Pham (far right) pose with his dental team and volunteers during this year’s Veterans’ Smile Day. Dr. Pham, a Navy veteran and a graduate of the ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership, founded the event in 2012. This year, more than 300 dentists from nearly all 50 states in providing more than $300,000 in free dental services to over 2,000 veterans.
In a growing effort to provide oral health care to those who served the United States in the military, more dentists are celebrating Veterans Day by volunteering care to former servicemen and women in need.

The annual Veterans’ Smile Day this year saw more than 300 dentists from nearly all the 50 states, providing more than $300,000 in free dental services to an estimated 2,000 veterans, said Dr. Karin Irani of Los Angeles, who organized the event, adding that the number could reach 3,000 when all participating dentists report their final data.

In comparison, 80 dentists from six states saw about 600 veterans during last year’s event.

Meanwhile in Pennsylvania, a trio of dentists launched a similar program called Give Vets A Smile — a play on the ADA Foundation’s Give Kids A Smile program, which provides free oral health services to underserved children.

“If we can do it for kids, we can do it for vets,” said Dr. Jay Freedman of Abington, Pennsylvania, who organized the event with Dr. Cary Limberakis, of Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, and Dr. Stanley Heleniak, of Lansdale, Pennsylvania.

And like Veterans’ Smile Day, Dr. Freedman said he hopes to continue to expand Give Vets A Smile, which provided about $11,000 in free dental services to veterans on Nov. 18, in their state and beyond.

When it comes to dental care, many veterans simply fall through the cracks.

Photo of Dr. Cary Limberakis and a veteran
Giving smiles: Dr. Cary Limberakis, of Jenkintown, Pa., treats a veteran during the inaugural Give Vets A Smile. Dr. Limberakis was one of three dentists who launched the program, treating veterans in Montgomery County. The organizers plan to expand the program throughout the rest of the southeast counties of Pennsylvania next year.
According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, veterans have to meet certain eligibility factors to receive dental care, such as service-related dental disability or condition, or if they are a former prisoner of war.

In addition, some veterans who qualify for dental benefits still don’t receive the care they need because of the distance to their nearest VA hospital.

During Veterans’ Smile Day, participating dental clinics may provide free dental care such as examinations, X-rays, oral cancer screening, cleanings, fillings, extractions and other preventive and restorative dental care. This year’s event, held the weekend following the Nov. 11 Veterans Day holiday, sought dentist volunteers to provide services in their own offices.

Dr. Deryck Pham, a Navy veteran and a graduate of the ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership, founded the event 3 years ago. Dr. Pham opened his Mays Landing, New Jersey, office to veterans who needed dental care in 2012, treating 33 patients. Dr. Irani helped  expand Veterans’ Smile Day to five states last year.

Organizers find veterans who need dental care by promoting the event in colleges, veteran services organizations, and through word-of-mouth and social media. Those veterans are then paired with a volunteer dentist. The day and time of the visit is scheduled ahead of time.

Dentists interested in participating this year, Dr. Irani said, decided how much time they could contribute, how many people they could see, what time of day they could see the veterans, what dental services they could provide, and whether they could provide the services for free or at a discount.

Henry Schein and Procter & Gamble again sponsored the event.

In the Houston-Katy area, the Greater Houston Dental Society partnered with Welch Dental Group to treat 58 veterans. In Bellingham, Washington, Dr. Aaron Lemperes’ dental office provided over $8,000 in dental services to 27 veterans—some of whom suffered from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and homelessness.

“The goal of the program was to provide dental care to veterans,” said Dr. Irani, a graduate of the ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership. “But the doctors got so much back from their work, and they continue to express how gratifying it was to give back to their communities.”

Some veterans, she said, brought their families and children.

“A dentist told me, ‘How could I say no to them? Of course I treated them’” she said. “The dentist said he was exhausted by the end of the day but never been happier.”

Next year, Dr. Irani said she hopes to find a way to involve dentists in larger group practices and corporate settings to participate. In addition, work has begun in creating and launching a Veterans Smile Day website to allow registration and data tracking more efficient.

“There’s still room to grow,” she said.

The same can be said for Give Vets A Smile. The group worked with the Veterans Affairs Department of Montgomery County in finding veterans, many of whom are homeless, and coordinating scheduling and transportation. Dr. Freedman said his group is hopeful to involve the whole southeast counties of Pennsylvania.

Each of the veterans received a comprehensive oral exam and dental review, and many needed extractions and restorations.

“But we’ve only scratched the surface,” Dr. Freedman said. “We want to make sure all the individuals we saw receive follow-up care.”

Dr. Freedman said that along with Veterans Day, Give Vets A Smile would occur twice year — the other event to be held between Flag Day in June and Memorial Day.

“We wouldn’t have these days without veterans,” he said.

For more information on Give Vets A Smile, email Dr. Freedman at jayfreedmandental@comcast.net. For more information on Veterans Smile Day and to participate next year, contact Dr. Irani at ddsusc03@gmail.com.