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Florida dentist provides free care to Holocaust survivors

November 07, 2019

By Matt Carey

Palm Beach, Fla. — Dr. Mitchell Josephs had recently joined the Palm Beach Synagogue earlier this year when he heard about a lecture with a Holocaust survivor being held at the congregation.

At the talk, Dr. Josephs learned that there are 12,000 Holocaust survivors living in Palm Beach County and 5,000 of them are living below the poverty line. He decided it was time to step up.

Since June, Dr. Josephs has provided free dental treatment to three Holocaust survivors living below the poverty line. He is hoping to take on more. These are not simply routine checkups. Dr. Josephs has provided dental implant surgery, prostheses, extractions, dentures and bone grafts.

 Dr. Joseph and Charlotte Plotsky
Helping survivors: Dr. Mitchell Josephs, left, poses with Charlotte Plotsky, one of three Holocaust survivors Dr. Josephs has been providing with free dental care since June.
Dr. Josephs found these Holocaust survivors through the Alpert Jewish Family Service, a nonprofit organization that provides social services to families in the Palm Beach area. The organization finds survivors through Claims Conference, a group that has negotiated with Germany to provide funding to agencies like Alpert Jewish Family Service to provide services to Holocaust survivors. Services include in-house care for survivors that can range anywhere from four to 105 hours a week. Alpert Jewish Family Service avoids moving survivors to assisted living facilities because that can cause them to have emotional distress that reminds them of traumatic experiences. This is known as triggering.

Treating Holocaust survivors requires dentists to be sensitive. Sometimes they might have to avoid their standard operating procedure.

“The most important thing to understand is that highly traumatized people like Holocaust survivors are triggered by things we aren’t aware of,” said Michael Gans, the director of HonoringLife, a program that educates professional caregivers on the patient-centered trauma-informed care of these survivors. Mr. Gans has an undergraduate degree in social work and is currently working on a doctorate in Holocaust studies.

According to Mr. Gans, anyone in uniform at a medical facility can be a trigger for survivors because of the medical professionals who participated in experimenting on prisoners in the Holocaust. Getting family medical history can be difficult because many survivors were too young when they lost their parents to know such things.

Mr. Gans suggests medical professionals think outside the box when working with these patients. He gives the example of a survivor in a hospital who was told she would have to fast for 24 hours before medical tests.

“The survivor started swearing, throwing things and overreacted,” the social worker said. “The trigger there was food. She had been starved for 10 years so food was a tremendous trigger. The nurse realized that and got all this packaged food and put it on the survivor’s bed. She told the survivor, ‘You can eat all of this. It’s here for you. But you need to get these tests done and you can eat afterward.’ ”

Dr. Josephs has proven to be a doctor who is skilled with these patients.

“Dr. Josephs said to me, ‘I want to do this. I want to have the people who have the most challenging situations for dental health,’” said Marc Hopin, the chief executive officer for Alpert Family Jewish Service. “He didn’t want to just fill a cavity or do a crown, so we went to our four case managers and asked them for recommendations.”

Dr. Josephs hopes that his work will inspire others to follow his lead.

“My hope is that as we get publicity that other dentists around the country will reach out to Jewish family organizations and communities to say they’ll do pro bono work for survivors,” said Dr. Josephs.

Mr. Hopin is anticipating more work for Dr. Josephs in the future.

“As long as Dr. Josephs is around and willing to do this, I’m sure we can find someone to put in his dental chair.”

Those interested in this type of volunteer effort may contact the Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies for resources on local groups like Alpert Jewish Family Service. To find an agency, visit www.networkjhsa.org/agency-locator.