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Volunteer dentists treat Holocaust survivors through national program — for free

December 04, 2017

By David Burger


Treatment accomplished: Dr. Michael Friedman, left, an Atlanta dentist, stands with one of his patients, Holocaust survivor Valery Kats, after Kats received dental treatment in 2017. Dr. Friedman has treated six survivors through the Alpha Omega-Henry Schein Cares Holocaust Survivors Oral Health Program.

Milwaukee — Max Drubinsky, 82, initially was reluctant to share his stories of surviving the Holocaust.

But once he did, the memories overflowed, ending the silence with tales of horror that transpired beginning when he was just 5 years old:

The unexplained disappearance of his father. His mother leading her family from their Belarus homeland, one step ahead of the invading Nazi army. The brutal murder of three loved ones — including a 1-year-old baby.

Dental problems pale in comparison to the terrors survivors endured.

But, in later years, as the survivors age, untreated dental problems can lead to excruciating pain. Many of the Holocaust survivors, immigrants to the United States, come impoverished, without affordable access to care and after years of ills including malnutrition and lack of education about oral care.

This is where the Alpha Omega-Henry Schein Cares Holocaust Survivors Oral Health Program comes in.

The program began in 2015 to provide pro-bono dental care to Holocaust survivors across nine North American metropolitan areas, said Dr. Avi Wurman, past president of the Alpha Omega International Dental Fraternity.

The program focuses on providing oral care to the most economically vulnerable Holocaust survivors who are served by the network of Jewish family and children's service agencies and identified partner organizations, as well as individuals of any faith who were victims of Nazi persecution and meet the other eligibility requirements of the program.

In addition to financial need, the three factors in prioritizing patients for participation are: elimination of pain, restoring function and lack of dental coverage.

The program’s birth, Dr. Wurman said, came from a call to action from former Vice President Joseph Biden during former President Barack Obama’s administration for the creation of innovative partnerships to provide services for Holocaust survivors in need.  It was found that of the Holocaust survivors in the United States, one-third live below the poverty line.

The Alpha Omega International Dental Fraternity, founded 110 years ago by a group of dental students to fight anti-Semitism, has a long history of philanthropic work to meet the needs of the underserved. So when Henry Schein, a global provider of health care products and services for office-based dentists, physicians and veterinarians, approached Alpha Omega to join them in the creation of a public-private partnership to provide pro-bono care for survivors in need, they were quick to act.

The program has been a success with the survivors it touched. Since the inception of the program, more than 700 survivors have received treatment, Dr. Wurman said.

Only three years later, the program has expanded to 21 additional cities and three dental schools: the A.T Still University Arizona School of Dentistry and Oral Health, Temple University Maurice H. Kornberg School of Dentistry and New York University College of Dentistry.

Survivors' experiences


Mr. Drubinsky and his wife, also a Holocaust survivor, were the recipients of care from the program, with Milwaukee dentist Dr. Stanley Teplin providing treatment.

“I will remember that man for a very long time,” said Mr. Drubinsky, who had, among other ailments, a recently broken tooth that was repaired with a crown and bridge. “Dr. Teplin is one of the best dentists I’ve met in a long time. I have no complaints. It looks perfect.”

“It’s really my honor to do it,” said Dr. Teplin, who has treated six patients through the program. “I’m just glad to be able to assist them. They had to give up everything. It was so horrific.”

Mr. Drubinsky was filled with so much gratitude for the work done on him and his wife — who underwent root canal treatment — that he gave Dr. Teplin a copy of his self-published memoir, written in Russian.

Other dentists who have been involved with the program shared similar sentiments of why they jumped at the chance to help the underserved population of Holocaust survivors once they heard about it at their local Alpha Omega meetings.

Dr. Michael Friedman is an Atlanta dentist who has treated six survivors. Before he became involved, he had never met a Holocaust survivor. Now, he said, he understands the suffering they lived through and what it means to the patients he has treated. “It makes them feel like they’ve been taken care of,” he said.

One of Dr. Friedman’s patients is 78-year-old Valery Kats, who was born in Ukraine and was a toddler when his father left to join the Red Army to fight the Germans and his mother fled from their village to Kiev to avoid the Nazis. Mr. Kats never saw his father again, and does not know what happened to him.

“Before this was done, I couldn’t eat properly,” Mr. Kats said of his life before being treated by Dr. Friedman. He was treated over several visits between February and September, and now says, “I’m so happy.”

Mr. Kats’ wife, Frida Kats, said that they got to know Dr. Friedman so well that he felt like family.

Connection with survivors


Dr. Rada Sumareva, who practices dentistry in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area, is a board member of the Alpha Omega Foundation and has been involved with the program since its inception. With her entire maternal line vanishing in the Holocaust, Dr. Sumareva has treated 10 Holocaust survivors. “It is very close to my heart,” Dr. Sumareva said. She added that to her, the honor of treating the survivors is a responsibility she takes seriously — in memory of those in her family whom she has lost.

“You see the trauma,” Dr. Sumareva said of her patients. “It’s been with them their whole lives.”

She continued: “We’ve heard that it’s a life-changing experience for them. When they smile, it lights up the entire room.”

Dr. Jeffrey Tilson, a Columbus, Ohio, dentist, has treated four survivors. He estimated that Columbus had about 200 Holocaust survivors, many of them Russian immigrants. “Things were pretty bleak in the Soviet Union for preventive dental care,” Dr. Tilson said.

What he received, Dr. Tilson said, was more than what he provided. “I felt like we hit a home run,” he said. “There’s no greater feeling than giving back.” One patient of his was so thankful that he gifted the dentist a bottle of Cognac.

Dr. Shawn Rotenberg, also a Columbus dentist, treated patients on his own and also with the assistance of Dr. Tilson. “As soon as I heard about it, I said, ‘Let’s do it,’” he said. He said he has treated 10 survivors.

One of Dr. Tilson and Dr. Rotenberg’s patients was 83-year-old Victor Altman, who moved to the United States in 1991 from the Soviet Union and was 6 years old when he and his family left Ukraine because of the Nazi invasion. His daughter, Svetlana Tverskaya, translated for him in an interview with ADA News, and said that now Mr. Altman’s “smile looks good. He had teeth, but they were not good.”

Now, Ms. Tverskaya said, her father is able to chew out of both sides of his mouth. In addition, “Aesthetically, it is much different.”

The connection to the survivors was already personal for Dr. Rotenberg. On his paternal side, he lost two-thirds of his family, including his grandfather and grandmother. Therefore, he said that he and fellow dentists in the program had no trouble treating survivors, no matter what it entailed. “No one batted an eye to the cost,” he said. “Dentists really stepped up to the plate.”

Dr. Laurie Gordon-Shaw is a Chicago dentist who leads the program’s efforts in the Windy City. Her childhood rabbi was a Holocaust survivor, and she has taken her children to concentration camp locations in Europe specifically to ensure that they never forget.

So when Dr. Gordon-Shaw heard about the program, her response was immediate. “Whatever you need me to do, I’m there,” she remembered saying.

She said treating survivors has been the “highlight of my professional career. Listening to their stories is just as healing as their teeth getting treatment. We are giving them dignity and validating their experiences.”

In Chicago, Dr. Gordon-Shaw said, there is a “huge” waiting list of Holocaust survivors who are living under the poverty line in need of dental care. She has treated so many survivors that she has lost track of how many she has seen.

Recognition for program


As the program has grown, the accolades have come in for the dentists in the program.

On Oct. 10, the Dr. Edward B. Shils Entrepreneurial Fund, a nonprofit organization dedicated to leadership in health care, bestowed several awards associated with the program during its 15th annual Shils Awards ceremony at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine.

The awards, which recognize people, organizations and programs that safeguard the oral health of underserved communities and populations and positively influence the dental community, awarded Henry Schein Cares, the corporate social responsibility program of Henry Schein, for creating this program and catalyzing the partnership;  the Alpha Omega International Dental Fraternity for the pro-bono care their members have provided to patients; Town & Country Dental Studios in Freeport, New York, the program’s laboratory partner in the United States; and Steve W. Kess, program co-chair and vice president of global professional relations at Henry Schein, for his leadership in the program, among other efforts.

“We at Henry Schein are honored to partner with Alpha Omega, its membership and our program stakeholders in the dental community to enhance the oral health, and by extension overall health, of Holocaust survivors living in poverty across North America,” said Mr. Kess. “By restoring function and eliminating pain, we are helping survivors live their lives in comfort and dignity. This population has lived through unspeakable trauma, and it is incumbent upon the private and public sectors to ensure that quality care is never beyond their reach.”

Earlier this year, the program was recognized in the Congressional Record by Rep. Thomas Suozzi of New York, and Alpha Omega was awarded a Power of A Silver Award from the American Society of Association Executives. The award recognizes a select number of organizations annually that distinguish themselves with innovative, effective and broad-reaching programs and activities that positively impact America and the world.

All treatment for eligible Holocaust survivors is provided on a pro-bono basis, but donations are accepted to offset the administrative costs of the program. To donate, visit aofus.org/ways-contribute/holocaust-survivors-oral-health-program.