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Dental oncologist manages Massachusetts Army National Guard citizen-soldiers during pandemic

Major called to active duty to coordinate testing for state’s most vulnerable populations

May 12, 2020

By David Burger

Image of Dr. Ryan Lee, a Massachusetts-based National Guard dental officer
Leadership: Dr. Ryan Lee stands in front of a team of soldiers and medics he was supervising at Tewksbury Hospital in Tewksbury, Mass., during the second week of April. The hospital had many mental health and psychiatric patients who needed testing for COVID-19. A week later, a very large percentage of its residents came back positive with the virus.

Boston — As recently as a few months ago, Dr. Ryan S. Lee, a dental oncologist with four offices in the Northeast, never thought he’d show up at a nursing home one day to find residents – still in their beds — who had died of COVID-19 the night before.

But the tragic experience is just one of many that Dr. Lee, a major in the Massachusetts Army National Guard, has been through since being called to active duty in early April to help coordinate COVID-19 testing for some of the commonwealth’s most vulnerable.

“There’s a lot of fear, and a lot of anxiety, but that’s not the only thing we’re experiencing,” said Dr. Lee, a father of two who hasn’t seen his wife and kids in person in more than a month as he lives in a nearby hotel reserved for frontline responders.

The other things he’s experiencing, he said, are witnessing the inspiring actions of his fellow soldiers and other collaborative health care partners mobilized to help where it’s needed, for as long as it takes.

Servant leadership

“We all know nursing home and mental health facilities have been hit pretty hard with COVID-19,” Dr. Lee said.

The National Guard is determined to do everything possible to prevent widespread infection rates in facilities they are working in, Dr. Lee said.

Overall, 60% of the state’s COVID-related deaths have occurred in long-term care facilities, said Dr. John Giordano, a lieutenant colonel and as Massachusetts National Guard state dental officer, Dr. Lee’s commanding officer.

“These individuals are among the most fragile and susceptible citizens of our commonwealth,” said Dr. Giordano. “One of the many responses to the pandemic was establishing a strike force capable of testing on a large scale. This information would be essential to monitor the COVID-19-positive percentage in our state.”

Dr. Lee added, “We need to do a lot of testing to learn more about the virus, and how it spreads.”

Dr. Lee’s world changed when he was activated on April 3 to lead 18 Massachusetts Army National Guard strike teams and help train 300 soldiers. Those soldiers under his supervision  have administered more than 30,000 COVID-19 tests in nursing homes, hospitals, veterans’ homeless shelters and mental health facilities in partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Dr. Lee credited his other officers and enlisted service members, such as his friends Drs. Jeremiah Granados and Sean Lee (no relation), both captains and private-practice dentists based in Connecticut, for their devotion to duty in the face of trying times. He is also continually amazed at the commitment his fellow citizen-soldiers, who include lawyers, truck drivers and computer programmers, have showed as they stepped up to become temporary health care workers.

“It’s such an inspiration to see these nonhealth care people answer the call,” Dr. Lee said. He had to instruct infantry and artillery soldiers on how to properly conduct nasopharyngeal swab tests and wear appropriate personal protective equipment.

Citizen-soldiers

Dr. Giordano complimented Dr. Lee’s readiness and abilities.

“Dr. Lee is a motivated, professional and dependable team dental officer who is eager to assist in any capacity to complete whatever mission he is assigned,” Dr. Giordano said.

Dr. Giordano said dentists are well-equipped to help during a pandemic.

“Being well-versed in infection control, patient management and precision-driven procedures, it seemed a good fit for actively engaging them,” the lieutenant colonel said. “It was my intent to utilize the talent of my dental officers in this mission. The vast knowledge they [have] in the civilian world augments their military training. This allows them to be flexible, adaptable and a great asset to our National Guard organization. We all used our talents and training as a team to move our mission forward and make a difference. I'm proud of my dental officers for accepting this challenge and doing what we do best to serve our community and nation as professional soldiers ready at a minute’s notice.”

The Army National Guard is one component of the Army and is composed primarily of civilians who serve their country, state and community on a part-time basis, usually one weekend each month and two weeks during the summer. Each state, most territories and the District of Columbia has its own National Guard. The governor can call the National Guard into action during local or statewide emergencies, such as storms, fires, earthquakes, civil disturbances — or pandemics.

Other duties of the Massachusetts National Guard at this time, according to its website, include:

• Supporting the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency with daily transportation missions to distribute personal protective equipment to police and fire departments, hospitals and nursing homes.
• Providing support at a drive-through testing site at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough.
• Providing medical delivery supply and armed law enforcement in Springfield.

Home of the brave

As for Dr. Lee, he is committed “100 percent” to his mission, despite shutting down four practices, having to furlough his dental staff members for a month and missing his daughter’s birthday in April. He is scheduled to be released from active duty at the end of May, but, of course, that could change.

Dr. Lee’s service in the National Guard is emblematic of who he is, said his wife.

“Ryan and I have never viewed dentistry as confined to the four walls of private practice,” said his wife, Dr. Nicole Holland, an assistant professor at the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine and member of the ADA National Advisory Committee on Health Literacy. “And yet, while there are still practices to maintain and academic responsibilities to pursue for both of us, he and the other dental officers on his team demonstrate how dentists, equipped with the expertise and perspective we bring to the health professions, are truly making a difference during this pandemic.”

For the time being, Dr. Lee FaceTimes his family every evening. That doesn’t mean that is the only thing he does for them, his wife said.

“While he’s out caring for the most vulnerable in Massachusetts by day, he still finds time to care for his family, albeit in more unique ways now,” Dr. Holland said. “We jokingly call him the Grocery Fairy in the Lee household, as he has gone to the store during his downtime on a couple of occasions to get some of the kids’ favorite foods that were out of stock when I placed my grocery order. He’ll then leave them on our doorstep at night, and the kids are beyond thrilled the next day to know their daddy got them their favorite food.”

It gives him a sense of normalcy, which is hard to come by some days.

“Even though I'm deployed with the National Guard and somewhat up to my neck with the COVID-19 response, I am a private-practice dentist with multiple offices I own and operate daily,” he said. “I share in the same hopes, dreams and concerns of the constituent dentists in our nation.”