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UNLV dental students treat vets at clinic named for fallen soldier

April 15, 2019

By David Burger

Photo of dental students treating a patient
Valor: Dental students at the Sgt. Clint Ferrin Dental Clinic at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, treat a veteran. A licensed dentist supervises all dental students.
Las Vegas — U.S. Air Force veteran Robert Bennett long harbored a fear.

"I would have rather faced a dinosaur than a dentist," said the Las Vegas resident, who served from 1965-72, leaving as a captain.

But once it got the point where the now-71-year-old started losing weight because he couldn't eat properly, Mr. Bennett knew he couldn't avoid dental treatment any longer.

A friend told him about the Sgt. Clint Ferrin Dental Clinic at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and once he arrived early on a bright Saturday morning, he said the clinic immediately put him at ease and subsequently out of pain.

"I couldn't be happier," Mr. Bennett said. "I can smile again."

The UNLV School of Dental Medicine's veteran clinic is now in the midst of its second decade of service, and it is one of several student-run clinics that are supervised by licensed dentists.

More than 70,000 patients each year visit the dental school clinics throughout Nevada. Its low-cost fees saved residents more than $5 million during 2018, according to Marcia Mastracci Ditmyer, Ph.D., associate dean of academic affairs, assessment and instruction at the dental school. Combined with community outreach and free clinics at the school during the same year, that equates to nearly $6.3 million in free services to those in need, she said.

The clinic Mr. Bennett visited was started in 2007 by then-student Dr. John Ferrin (and now Oregon-based dentist) in memory of his brother Sgt. Clint Ferrin. Sgt. Ferrin was killed in action in Iraq, said third-year dental student Sean Fitzgibbons, the president of the clinic. Mr. Fitzgibbons is a veteran himself, having served in the Marine Corps for seven years before departing to become a dental student.

According to Dr. Ditmyer, Dr. Ferrin's brother was a member of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division, and had several teeth that caused him pain during his service — he eventually lost a tooth during a training session. He received a temporary prosthetic two years later, which he rarely wore because it fit poorly. In 2004, he was killed by an improvised explosive device while leading his platoon in a mission.

"Flossing and brushing are not priorities among soldiers because they are mostly focused on their missions and staying alive," said Dr. Ditmyer. "Unfortunately, the bone loss from periodontal disease is not easily replaced."

Many veterans do not qualify for dental benefits, as the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs will provide care only if the person is 100% disabled, has been a prisoner of war or developed a specific condition during his or her active service, Mr. Fitzgibbons said. "They go from total health care to nothing," Mr. Fitzgibbons said. "We get a lot of vets who say they haven't seen the dentist since they were in the service."

The Sgt. Ferrin clinic serves the oral health needs of the underinsured or uninsured veterans for free, and takes place 10 times per year and has completed more than 7,000 procedures, ranging from cleanings to root canals and tooth extractions, valued at more than $1.2 million, Dr. Ditmyer said.

The Sgt. Ferrin clinic is 100% volunteer-based, Mr. Fitzgibbons said. At each clinic date, about 30-40 dental students volunteer, with about twice that number having served in the clinic over the past year, he said. "Everyone embraces it," Mr. Fitzgibbons said.

Mr. Fitzgibbons said that even though Dr. Ferrin has moved on, the memory of his brother lives on. "We're carrying the torch for him," he said.

For Mr. Bennett, having visited the Sgt. Ferrin clinic was a godsend. "They gave me my life back," he said. "The good life."