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9/11 plus 10: A look back on dentistry’s response to tragedy

Dr. Robert M. Anderton of Argyle, Texas, was ADA president when the terrible events of Sept. 11, 2001, shook the world, rallied the nation and spurred unprecedented response from the dental community.

Image: Dentistry responds
A graphic used in the ADA News 10 years ago

“We must not allow the despicable acts of terrorists to divert us from our mission as an organization of health care providers,” said Dr. Anderton, announcing that the Association’s 142nd Annual Session, just weeks away at the time, would proceed.

This week, the nation and the world mark the tenth anniversary of a day now often identified solely by its fateful date: 9/11.

Dr. Anderton, 10 years hence, noted that the ADA, like the nation itself, is as determined as ever to succeed, despite new and continuing challenges.

“The dental profession and the ADA remain strong and on course,” he said this week. “Our dedicated goal, as the foremost dental health care organization in the world, is to ensure that our patients and the public we serve have access to the very highest quality of oral health care.”

Dr. Raymond Gist, the ADA’s current president, echoed that sentiment as the Association prepared for its 152nd Annual Session, just weeks away in Las Vegas.

“The legacy of the ADA and dentistry is one of continuing progress,” he said.  “Like this great country of ours, we rise to the challenges that confront us. We move ever forward. We never back down.”

What follows are brief remembrances of the terrible events of 9/11 from some who aided in dentistry’s response to tragedy and who were interviewed at the time by the ADA News:

A dispatch from midtown

In the Oct. 1, 2001, issue of the ADA News, Dr. Leslie Seldin reported being with a patient chairside in his midtown Manhattan office when one airliner, then another struck the World Trade Center two miles south.

Image: People in Nashville, Tenn., participate in a day of prayer and remembrance on Sept. 14, 2001
Standing together: People in Nashville, Tenn., participate in a day of prayer and remembrance on Sept. 14, 2001. This Sunday marks the 10-year anniversary of  that September’s terrible events.

“We heard nothing,” he said at the time. “The first information we got was on the radio. It was then that we all woke up to what was going on.”

A decade later, Dr. Seldin is no longer in active dental practice. “I hate the word ‘retired,’” he confided. “I’m still active, just not practicing.”

And active he is. A past vice president of the ADA, Dr. Seldin today is chairman of the Board of The Dr. Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore and busy with a host of other activities that keep him engaged in his profession.

“In looking back over my almost 40 years in practice, there are no more vivid memories than of that day, which I believe changed the world in so many ways,” observed Dr. Seldin.

“First, I recall being incredulous about what I was seeing, then watching the hordes of people fleeing past my office windows on foot to escape from lower Manhattan,” he continued.

“Finally, the surreal feeling I had that afternoon, sitting in the sunshine in New York’s Central Park, where eerie silence prevailed in the absence of planes in the sky [air traffic had been grounded] or children playing. Reliving those moments in my mind still brings back images and emotions that will be with me forever.”

Helping financially

Responding quickly to the events of 9/11, the Association established the ADA American Tragedy Fund to help with the relief effort. Funds collected through this temporary fund were disbursed directly to needy dentists, their families and other victims, and also contributed to the American Red Cross.

The fund was maintained through 2001, discontinued in 2002. Audited financial statements from the time show that total contributions to the fund amounted to $401,668. The records also confirm that every dime of that money was disbursed to those in need.

Notes from the Pentagon

Dr. William B. Durm, a captain in the Navy in 2001, oversaw triage units for Pentagon casualties on 9/11.

“My dentists were outstanding,” he told the Association in the Nov. 5, 2001, ADA News.

The Navy later issued this statement: “The actions of the personnel in uniform, GS workers [general schedule-civilian] and contract personnel were commendable. Led by the director of the Pentagon dental clinic, Capt. Bill Durm, this triservice group of dental professionals distinguished themselves while working in an environment inhibited by smoke and fire.”

In 2006, Dr. Durm retired from the Navy after 30 years, though he still practices as a civilian dentist at the Pentagon’s Triservice Dental Clinic, where memories of 9/11 are ever-present.

“I still think of the events that day as I walk through the halls at the Pentagon and all the fine people who died that day here,” he said. “I thank God every day for the dentists I worked with that day. They are truly heroes and great professionals.

“I hope all of us will not forget what happened that day and honor those who gave all on that sunny September day.”

Identifying the victims

Dr. James McGivney, the St. Louis forensic dentist who developed the WinID dental computer system that helps identify the unidentified, expected to be summoned to the Pentagon after 9/11.

Instead, he spent “several weeks” at the World Trade Center in New York with DMORT—a Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team of experts in victim identification and mortuary services.

“A new version of my program in WinID was released, and it proved useful,” recalled Dr. McGivney, who shared his 9/11 experiences with the ADA in the Nov. 5, 2001, ADA News.

WinID matches missing persons to unidentified remains using a ranking system based on dental and other identifiers. In addition to the World Trade Center, the system was used to identify victims at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pa., where United Airlines Flight 93 went down with 38 passengers and seven crew.

Since 2001, noted Dr. McGivney, WinID has been used at multiple other disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti, and the Joplin, Mo., tornado.

“I have been in Hawaii for the past three weeks [where] I work for the military at the Central Identification Lab,” he said. “At present, I am making sure that records of the missing and unidentified from the Korean War are correctly coded and entered into the computer.”

Dr. McGivney and his wife still live in St. Louis.  Two years ago, he sold his dental practice and now sees patients part-time for the dentist who bought it.

An unselfish response

Dr. Lawrence A. Dobrin, chief forensic dentist with the Office of Chief Medical Examiner Dental Consultants in New York City, was among “hundreds of dental professionals from all over the country” who worked tirelessly after 9/11 at the grim task of “giving tragedy its names.”

The work, he recalls, was round the clock, day and night for nine months.

“For most [dentists] donating their time, this was a first experience in the world of forensic dentistry,” said Dr. Dobrin. “Many continued to show an interest in this field after their services were no longer needed at the NYC-OCME.”

These dentists now constitute what amounts to a bullpen of professionals at the ready.

“They have been training over these last 10 years and remain on alert in the event that they are needed for a disaster requiring more personnel than our current core group of dental consultants can adequately process,” said Dr. Dobrin.

He spoke of the “haunting memories” of 9/11 but said he much preferred to recall “the dental profession’s unselfish response to tragedy.”

He’s not alone in that.

For more 9/11 remembrances, see related story.