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'Compassion for the living and reverence for the victims'

Rutgers duo helps Puerto Rico with experience in forensic dentistry

February 08, 2018

By David Burger

Photo of Dr. Dobrin
Dr. Dobrin
Photo of Dr. Zohn
Dr. Zohn
San Juan, Puerto Rico — Two faculty members of the Rutgers School of Dental Medicine didn't wait long when Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in late September.

Drs. Harry Zohn and Lawrence Dobrin were among the first responders to the island territory as forensic dentists of the federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team.

For two weeks that lasted until Oct. 10, the two professors worked 12-hour days in challenging conditions to assist the Puerto Rico medical examiner's office in identifying fatalities from the disaster through dental records.

Dr. Dobrin, chief forensic odontologist with the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner and visiting associate professor at Rutgers, said it was a rewarding experience being able to help families in Puerto Rico in the way he could. "We need to have compassion for the living and reverence for the victims," he said.

Dr. Zohn, a full professor who teaches a course on forensic dentistry at Rutgers, first became interested in forensics when as a college student he went to a lecture by Simon Wiesenthal, the late Holocaust victim, storyteller and Nazi hunter. A remark that Mr. Wiesenthal made left its mark on Dr. Zohn: "It's just as important to know if people are dead than if they're alive."

Dr. Zohn, who was already a fan of shows such as "Unsolved Mysteries," decided to learn as much as he could about forensic dentistry, enrolling in forensic courses at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

For Dr. Dobrin, he first became interested in forensic dentistry when he was, and remains, an advocate for the prevention of child abuse, becoming an expert and lecturer in the field, as he is past president of the American Society of Dentistry for Children.

The two have long resumes containing events that required their services, notably the Sept. 11 attacks in New York City. Both also have experiences with multiple plane crashes, natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy and even house fires.

Puerto Rico was something entirely different. "No disaster is similar," Dr. Dobrin said.

Dr. Zohn said eight dentists of the federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team traveled to Puerto Rico to help the medical examiners' backlog of body identification. The two worked in a sequestered location working on, among other tasks, dental X-rays.

Phone and internet service was erratic and electricity flickered on and off throughout the day despite a generator. Complicating matters was that dental records were in Spanish and many of their colleagues in the medical examiner's office only spoke that language.

Members of the team slept on cots in large quarters with hundreds of other people, and subsisted on MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), self-contained, individual field rations used by the military for use in combat. "They're good the first day or two," Dr. Dobrin said.

Drs. Zohn and Dobrin cannot reveal details about the victims but were happy to talk about the Puerto Rican medical examiners' response to their presence. "It was a psychological uplift to the people," Dr. Dobrin said. "They were very appreciative that we came and sacrificed our time. This was a tough deployment, but we were welcomed."

Dr. Zohn considers his role as a forensic dentist as "one of the most important aspects of my career. I feel like I'm making a difference."

The two echoed each other when they said that even though their efforts don't bring closure, they can at least offer certainty and, sometimes, bring peace of mind.