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Prosthodontic volunteers mark 25 years of service

June 04, 2015

By Michelle Manchir

Bright new smile: Ed Naranjo checks out his new dentures provided by a team of volunteers associated with the Academy of Prosthodontics Foundation Outreach Program during the volunteers’ visit to a Goshute reservation in Utah.  Naranjo’s grandson, Izaiah, sits with him.
They sometimes work 15-hour days and skip meals. They bought lawn chairs to seat patients and transformed a mobile trailer into a lab — all to help edentulous patients.

Despite the required labor and creativity, the volunteers with the Academy of Prosthodontics Foundation Outreach Program never hesitate to return year after year to underserved areas across the U.S.

This year marks 25 years of service for the core of 12 volunteers who travel annually, mostly to Native American Indian reservations, providing dentures for patients who have few or no other options for getting dental care, said Dr. Geoffrey Thompson, chairman of the foundation’s Outreach Program and director of the graduate program in prosthodontics at the Marquette University School of Dentistry.

Since the early 1990s, volunteers in teams and individually ­– with the help of thousands of dollars worth of donated materials – have provided more than 1,660 dentures and partials to more than 940 patients, Dr. Thompson estimates.

Organizers focus their service on Native American Indian reservations or Alaska Native reserves where waitlists for prosthodontic care are sometimes hundreds of names long due in part to geographic isolation, Dr. Thompson said.

Dr. Thomas Taylor, chair of the division of prosthodontics at the UConn School of Dental Medicine, has led a team of volunteers to Juneau and Sitka, Alaska, 15 times over the last 25 years, where he says patients will in some cases travel long distances by ferry or airplane to get services.

Grueling work: Dr. Geoffrey Thompson uses a rasp for a model trimmer while volunteering in 2014 on the Goshute reservation in Utah.
“They have a waitlist that extends over a year and they have one shot on that list, so (they do) whatever it takes to get to us,” said Dr. Taylor.

The remote sites that volunteers have visited over the years also include Browning, Montana; Arapaho, Wyoming; and Montezuma Creek, Utah. Many places they visit lack a comprehensive dental clinic, so volunteers have learned to improvise with whatever tools are available.

Volunteers recall buying lawn chairs at a Wal-Mart near one of the reservations so patients would have a place to sit, buying a tent and folding tables to supplement volunteers’ pop-up clinic and using a pot meant for boiling lobster to process dentures.

“It’s kind of roughing it, but it’s really a lot of fun,” Dr. Taylor said. “We get the job done.”

So they can see as many patients as they can during the weeklong trips, volunteers work up to 15 hour each day, sometimes sleeping or having a meal in less-than-ideal conditions, said Dr. Ed Plekavich, who practices in Sterling, Virginia.

Plekavich said he remembers eating fruit and Doritos he bought from an airport for dinner during one trip to Montezuma Creek, Utah. He said he lost 12 pounds that week.

Pausing for a smile: Dr. Ed Plekavich, seated left, Dr. Jon Irelan, standing left, Dr. Geoffrey Thompson, standing, and Dr. Pratiksha Agrawal work in the volunteers’ mobile trailer during a 2014 visit to a Goshute reservation in Utah.

Still, the volunteers, who are mostly dentists who specialize in prosthodontics along with a team of graduate students and lab technicians, say the outreach trips are meaningful and personally rewarding ways to contribute to the underserved.

“We get such a kick out of doing this,” said Dr. Thompson. “It’s kind of like a high. I mean we really, really work hard and it’s sort of like running a marathon – you would never do another one if you remembered how hard it was (but) we enjoy putting the smiles on people’s faces.”

For some of the volunteers, the work especially hits home. Dr. Paul Martinez, who practices in Price, Utah, said his relatives were born and raised on a Native American reservation in Colorado. Dr. Martinez now helps the outreach program determine which tribes or areas may have the most pressing needs, and his background and understanding of the cultures can be useful when interacting with some of the patients, he said.

“It’s easier for me to talk to a lot of those individuals,” Dr. Martinez said, adding “All clinicians — medical and dental — we should be doing these types of things. We should be trying to help out those people that aren’t able to provide for themselves.”

Most volunteers can recall particularly memorable moments with grateful patients that motivate their return each year: witnessing tears of joy, a woman blushing with pride upon seeing her new teeth, letters from former patients who write about how their new smile helped them secure a better job.

“A patient in Oklahoma wrote to me, sent me some venison sausage, and said he enjoyed his first dinner in more than five years,” recalled Dr. Plekavich.  “The greatest rewards for us for participating are the reactions of and personal impact on the patients we serve.”

Dr. Thompson said program organizers would like to expand the program to other tribal areas and are always seeking volunteers for the trips.

For more information, contact the Academy of Prosthodontics by calling 1-858-272-1018 or email ap@res-inc.com. The website is academyofprosthodontics.org.