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Nevada program provides donated dental care to more than 1,000 veterans

May 28, 2019

By David Burger

Alford Mallord before and after treatment
Transformation: Army veteran Alford Mallord shows off his smile both before and after treatment in the Northern Nevada Dental Health Programs’ Adopt a Vet dental program.

Reno, Nev. — Doctors diagnosed Air Force veteran Tiffany Swisher with adult-onset epilepsy about 15 years ago. After a long time trying out different combinations of medications to help her manage her seizures, she found one that worked.

But Ms. Swisher soon found that one of the newer medications resulted in tooth erosion, possibly an exacerbation of already existing periodontal disease. Soon, gaps appeared in a smile that she had always taken pride in, she said, and a dental consultation confirmed that her medication regimen was to blame.

“It was getting worse and worse,” she said of her teeth. “It got painful and it was hard to look in the mirror.”

The local Veterans Affairs hospital couldn’t help her because she didn’t qualify for lifetime dental services, and $8,000 in loans her family took out to help her receive dental treatment soon ran out.

One night, after desperately scouring the Internet for help, Ms. Swisher found Northern Nevada Dental Health Programs’ Adopt a Vet Dental Program, part of the nonprofit arm of the Northern Nevada Dental Society.

Ms. Swisher eventually became one of more than 1,060 veterans in Nevada to receive free life-changing dental treatments through the program since its inception a decade ago.

The story begins in 2009, when Linda Haigh, who was a senior outreach program director at the University of Nevada, Reno, volunteered at a subsidized housing unit in Reno. During her visit, she found 60 veterans living with debilitating oral disease. Knowing they had no family or other support, Linda and her husband Wayne recruited local dentists to provide free dental care to these veterans. Due to demand, the Haighs founded the Adopt a Vet Dental Program in 2010.

The Adopt a Vet Dental Program eventually became an independent nonprofit in order to serve more low-income veterans and to raise funds for their lab costs and emergency dental procedures and is now a program of Northern Nevada Dental Health Programs.

More than $5 million worth of dental care has been donated by dentists in the Adopt a Vet Dental Program’s over the past decade, and more than 130 Nevada dentists have volunteered their time to provide care for veterans. The Adopt a Vet Dental Program has also received free or discounted services from 16 dental labs.

Dr. Maggie Heinen is one of the volunteer dentists. A 2008 graduate of the University of Las Vegas, Nevada, School of Dental Medicine, she boasts a family tree that includes a grandfather who served in World War II and a cousin who is an Air Force retiree.

Dr. Heinen
Dr. Heinen

 “Our veterans deserve the best,” said Dr. Heinen, who has treated seven veterans through the Adopt a Vet Dental Program. “Dental work can be so expensive, and there’s only a small percentage of veterans who qualify for VA dental care. This is a huge need for these veterans.”

Army veteran Alford Mallord was a recipient of treatment in the Northern Nevada Dental Health Programs’ Adopt a Vet dental program. Mr. Mallord needed an emergency extraction, and then went on to receive restorations and upper and lower partial dentures. Upon completing his treatment, Mr. Mallord was so excited that he caught a bus ride directly to the AAVD office to tell the team there how happy he was. He began treatment in October 2018 and completed his treatment in February.

Every year, the Adopt a Vet Dental Program hears from more and more veterans. While the program continues to pair veterans with volunteer dentists in the community, it reached a point where it required the addition of a clinic in order to attend to more veterans. In early 2017, it opened a dental clinic at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, which has been instrumental in cutting wait times and expediting care for more than 200 veterans currently waitlisted for the program.

In collaboration with the dental programs at the college, there are now plans for a remodeled and expanded dental clinic thanks funding from the William N. Pennington Foundation. The foundation was established by Mr. Pennington, a veteran himself.

The new clinic is set to be completed later this year. It will be open three days per week with seven dental chairs in operation, which means more veterans can be seen more efficiently. The clinic’s eventual goal is to treat 45 veterans per week.

Dentists aren’t the only ones donating their time in service to the Adopt a Vet Dental Program.

Ms. Swisher was so happy with her experience that she wants more Nevada veterans to learn about the benefits of the program. She comes into the Reno offices of the Adopt a Vet Dental Program one day a week to volunteer her time, answering phones, talking to prospective patients and helping with patient intake.

“I wanted to pay it forward,” Ms. Swisher said.

To learn more about Northern Nevada Dental Health Programs, visit nndhp.org.