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Dental community remembers Navy dentist as 'a shining star'

January 29, 2018

By Michelle Manchir

Lake Forest, Ill. — The untimely Jan. 3 death in this Chicago suburb of a Navy dentist with a passion for public health dentistry and serving others has sparked an outpouring of condolences from many in the dental community.

Lt. Dr. Claire VanLandingham, 27, died after an estranged ex-boyfriend shot her before also killing himself, according to news reports.

Photo of Dr. VanLandingham in her Navy dress uniform
Lt. Dr. Claire VanLandingham
By many accounts, Dr. VanLandingham was a compulsive helper of others. Dr. Puja Sangoi, who was in dental school at the University of Louisville at the same time as Dr. VanLandingham, said she and her late friend "often talked together about how important it would be to be able to provide free dental care to patients who really need it."

Dr. VanLandingham grew up in Indiana and went to Indiana University for undergraduate school, where she earned a degree in nonprofit management, said her mother, Shannon VanLandingham.  She took a year off from school to study and travel in the United Kingdom before entering dental school with the intent to work long enough to be able to open a clinic to help underserved patients, her mom said. The first dentist in her family, she liked the idea of being able to make her own schedule and have some work-life balance, said Ms. VanLandingham about her daughter.

She became a commissioned Navy Dental Corps officer in 2013, going on to attend dental school in Louisville. There, Dr. VanLandingham made time to be a "big sister" as part of the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization in Louisville, taking the young girl out bowling, to the ballet, or tutoring her in math. She was also active with her church, and part of the American Association for Women in Dentistry chapter at the school.

With the AAWD, she "was the driving force" for the group's involvement with the Take Back the Night march and rally, an anti-violence initiative, at the school in 2016, recalled Dr. Pauletta Baughman, a professor of dentistry at University of Louisville who also is faculty advisor for the chapter.

"It's amazing to me that she was able to do so many things for so many people, all while still maintaining good grades and taking time to remain close to her friends and family," said Megan Keynton, a fourth year dental student at University of Louisville, who was Dr. VanLandingham's mentee at the school.

As a student and professional, Dr. VanLandingham thought often about patient care, her mom said, and once made a thoughtful post to Facebook while still in dental school about her commitment to patient care.

"You know how parents love their babies before they are even born?" she wrote. "How they prepare for and love the baby they haven't even met yet? That's the way I feel about my patients. The thought of my patients, including the ones I haven't met yet, drives me to study, gets me through late nights at the lab, and inspires and terrifies me all at the same time. I hope my patients all know how much I care for and appreciate them and how long I have spent preparing to meet them. I'm not just saying it when I say 'nice to meet you.'"

Dr. VanLandingham realized her interest in public health dentistry during dental school. After her graduation in 2017, she applied and was accepted to Johns Hopkins to pursue a masters degree in public health, said Dr. Sangoi, who graduated from the same program and texted about it with Dr. VanLandingham.

"Claire was thrilled when she learned she was accepted into the same program and she would brainstorm with me the ways in which her master's in public health degree and the courses she would take would enable her to create organizations and initiatives that could help with preventive dentistry and public health awareness about dentistry," said Dr. Sangoi.

For the last five months, Dr. VanLandingham had been providing care to Naval recruits at the U.S.S. Osborne — Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago, Illinois, where she'd already earned the respect of many colleagues and her patients, according to a Facebook post from the health care center. In December, she completed the federal health care center tactical combat casualty care course to advance her deployment readiness level in the Navy, the post said, even though she wasn't required to do it as a dentist.

"She was a fantastic dentist, who earned the respect of every patient ... I told her detailer she would be ready for wherever she would be assigned in the Navy," said Commander Dr. Kristi Erickson in the Facebook post, which also described Dr. VanLandingham as "a shining star … who was rapidly learning and advancing" at the U.S.S. Osborne.

Ms. VanLandingham said her only daughter made it her goal to be a place of calm for the Naval recruits, some involved in grueling schedules, who visited her dental chair.

"She vowed that she would be the brightest spot during their time there," said Ms. VanLandingham.

Her family held a memorial service for Dr. VanLandingham in January in Kansas, where her family now lives. Ms. VanLandingham said hundreds of colleagues and friends flew in from across the country, and from as far as Japan, to pay tribute.

Shortly after her death, Dr. VanLandingham's dental school friends launched on social media the hashtag #BeMoreLikeClaire, which now floods Facebook with posts from her loved ones who use it to remember her genuine heart.

Said Dr. Sangoi, "That hashtag is a perfect reminder for all of us who knew her to be a better person on a daily basis. Claire represented a role model-type figure to all of us in the type of person we should strive to be every day. She represented so much good-heartedness that many of us wish we could be like. If we all decide to be even a fraction of generous and giving and kind as Claire was, then the world would be a better place."

Dr. VanLandingham is survived by her parents, Shannon and Samuel VanLandingham, her brothers Benjamin and Taylor, her paternal grandmother, maternal grandfather and many family and friends.

Contributions can be made in Dr. VanLandingham's name to the Douglas County Dental Clinic in Kansas, where she worked for a summer, online at dcdclinic.org/giving.html.

ADA President Joseph P. Crowley said, "Although I did not know her personally, it is apparent Lt. Dr. VanLandingham was the 'brightest spot' in every life she touched. She will be dearly missed by family, friends and our profession."