Den­tal pro­gram puts grins on area unin­sured vets

For the 4th year, Give Vets a Smile pro­vides free care, in­clud­ing preven­tion and therapy

Houston Chronicle - - CITY | STATE - By Alyson Ward STAFF WRITER

Dee Behn has a gor­geous smile, with two straight rows of small white teeth. But back in the back of her mouth, there’s trou­ble: Two of her top back teeth have chips, and she’s miss­ing a mo­lar on the left side.

“I’ve been blessed — I think it’s just in the genes that I have de­cent teeth,” she said. But even so, it’s been “sev­eral years” since she last saw a den­tist.

Behn, 58, and Marine Corps vet­eran, got a free den­tal exam Fri­day at the UTHealth School of Den­tistry, along with about 100 other mil­i­tary vet­er­ans. In the coming weeks, she may be able to get her den­tal is­sues fixed for good — and free of charge.

Fri­day’s event, called Give Vets a Smile, brought in vet­er­ans from across the Hous­ton area for ur­gent, pal­lia­tive, ther­a­peu­tic and pre­ven­tive den­tistry. For the fourth year in a row, a group of unin­sured vets got the den­tal work they needed, free of charge.

The first floor exam space — a room full of den­tal chairs sec­tioned off by cu­bi­cles — was filled with scrapes from den­tal scalers and the whirring of suc­tion wands. Vets lined up in the hall­way for their turn in a chair. Some were young and tat­tooed, some older and in poor health. A few had am­pu­tated limbs, sac­ri­ficed in ser­vice to their coun­try.

Behn spent three years in the Marines, sta­tioned part of that time in Ok­i­nawa, Ja­pan, as a sup­ply ad­min­is­tra­tion and op­er­a­tions spe­cial­ist. In other words, she’s not in­ti­mated by a lit­tle den­tal work. When it was her turn Fri­day morn­ing, she re­clined in the chair and calmly folded her hands.

Maria Osy­pova, a sec­ond-year den­tal hy­giene stu­dent, gave Behn a pa­per bib and a pair of pro­tec­tive glasses as her class­mate, Lisa Nguyen, turned on the bright lamp above her head.

“I’ll feel around,” Nguyen said, her pur­ple-gloved fin­gers prob­ing at Behn’s gums. “Let me

know if any­thing is sore or ten­der.”

Give Vets a Smile is a pro­gram with a lot of part­ners. UTHealth’s School of Den­tistry and School of Nurs­ing team up with seven lo­cal agen­cies that work with vets. Those agen­cies —in­clud­ing New Hope Hous­ing, Camp Hope and Easter Seals Greater Hous­ton — help find vet­er­ans who are unin­sured and need den­tal care. On Fri­day, UTHealth’s den­tal res­i­dents, den­tal stu­dents and den­tal hy­giene stu­dents gave them clean­ings and ex­ams.

Usu­ally, the goal is to give ex­ams and clean­ings and treat what­ever is caus­ing im­me­di­ate pain, said Dr. Kim­berly Ruona, as­so­ciate dean for pa­tient care at the school of den­tistry. But this year, a $100,000 grant from the Delta Den­tal Com­mu­nity Care Foun­da­tion will fund fol­low-up care for the vets who need fol­low-up treat­ment, ev­ery­thing from fill­ings and crowns to den­tures and ex­trac­tions.

And that’s im­por­tant, be­cause they might not get that care any­where else, said Dr. Margo Mel­chor, di­rec­tor of com­mu­nity out­reach for the den­tal school.

“Vet­er­ans are known now as an un­der­served pop­u­la­tion,” she said. The VA doesn’t pro­vide rou­tine den­tal care, so a lot of vet­er­ans end up ne­glect­ing their teeth for fi­nan­cial rea­sons, Mel­chor said. “If they don’t get into a work force that pro­vides them that in­sur­ance, they’re not go­ing to get it.”

Behn said she has looked at den­tal in­sur­ance plans, but she has lim­ited in­come and the plans she has con­sid­ered don’t seem to be worth the monthly premium. But a cou­ple of months ago, she called Har­ris County’s Precinct 2 about an­other mat­ter, and some­one on the phone men­tioned the Give Vets a Smile Pro­gram. She thought it might be a good chance to get some­one to look at her mo­lar, which was pulled out years ago af­ter a hair­line crack started pinch­ing a nerve.

The first Give Vets a Smile event in 2015 treated 35 vet­er­ans, Ruona said. By last year, that num­ber had grown to 70. On Fri­day, Ruona ex­pected about 100 vet­er­ans to come through the door for treat­ment.

“With the ad­di­tional fund­ing, we should be able to treat 100 vets with more com­pre­hen­sive care,” she said — be­tween $1,000 and $2,000 per vet­eran for what­ever they need. That’s enough to get them out of pain and get their mouths back in or­der, she said — whether that re­quires crowns or bridges or ex­ten­sive fill­ings.

Behn needs a crown for her miss­ing mo­lar and some work on her two chipped teeth. That couldn’t be com­pleted Fri­day, but she’s plan­ning to come back af­ter the hol­i­days.

“You’ve never had braces be­fore?” Nguyen asked Behn as she fin­ished her clean­ing. “You have re­ally great teeth. Beau­ti­ful.”

“That was one thing my mother al­ways told me,” Behn said — to take care of her teeth and to never let a den­tist pull them out. She’s lost one mo­lar, but Behn said she’s happy to be get­ting her teeth cared for now.

“My mom, she’s not here any­more,” she said, then looked up at the ceil­ing. “But hey, Mom — I lis­tened.”

Pho­tos by Jon Shap­ley / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Dee Behn, at top, a Marine vet­eran, is prepped for a clean­ing by Maria Osy­pova, a den­tal hy­giene stu­dent, Fri­day at UTHealth School of Den­tistry. Behn, hold­ing a pic­ture of her­self from 1979, had chipped teeth and a miss­ing mo­lar. She said it had been sev­eral years since she had last seen a den­tist.

Jon Shap­ley / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Lisa Nguyen, a den­tal hy­giene stu­dent, cleans Dee Behn’s teeth.

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