On Saturday October 2, 2021, Harvard School of Dental Medicine (HSDM) opened its doors to veterans for free dental care and consultations during the School’s first Give Veterans a Smile event.
Similar to HSDM’s annual Give Kids a Smile event, the event was organized by dental students with the goal of providing care to the community and addressing gaps in veterans’ access to oral healthcare. Over 30 predoctoral students volunteered for the event along with residents from AGE specialty programs, faculty, and Harvard Dental Center staff members. Veterans from several branches of the military attended.
William Gates, who served in the U.S. Army for 22 years, came to the event after not having been to the dentist in two years. “I have full medical coverage through the VA (Veterans Affairs), but not dental,” Gates said. When asked if the Give Veterans a Smile event should continue on a regular basis he said, “Absolutely. I know there are a lot of other guys out there who don’t have access to any kind of dental care.”
Kaitlyn Cardenas, a rising second-year DMD student, and one of the organizers of the event, is studying the challenges veterans encounter when seeking oral health care. At the event, she was conducting one-on-one surveys with veterans. When she sat down with one veteran, he explained he had a toothache that caused so much pain that it became difficult to eat, talk and socialize, yet he couldn’t find treatment easily due to his work schedule and trying to navigate available resources.
“One of the reasons I entered this field is because oral health impacts so many things,” Cardenas said. She hopes the data from her research project will help uncover what keeps veterans from seeking care, and what procedures or interventions may be needed to better meet the needs of the veteran community.
“The veterans coming home now are really frustrated [trying to get dental care]. When you’re in the military you get healthcare provided, it’s challenging once you get out,” Danda Oglesvy, a veteran with five years of service in the U.S. Marine Corps, said.
VA dental care benefits depend on a number of factors, such as military service history and veterans’ current health and living situation. Based on these factors, the VA determines a benefits class. Very few veterans qualify for full dental care unless they have a service-connected disability or were a former prisoner of war.
“We’re aware that veterans can have a hard time accessing care if they are not 100% service connected,” Cardenas said. “I was surprised by the qualifications the veterans had to meet to receive care through the VA.”
Veterans attending Saturday’s event had the chance to have consultations with specialists like Waad Alomran, a Prosthodontics resident who treated a patient suffering from discomfort due to a heavy bite. The patient is now scheduled to return for future appointments to correct his bite.
“He hadn’t been seen by a dentist for years, and hadn’t had a dental intervention for at least eight years, Alomran said. “He had discomfort for the last six months but waited for this opportunity to come to the dentist.”
“It was a great morning supporting our veterans,” said Dean William Giannobile who attended Give Veterans a Smile. “Special thanks to our students and faculty for dedicating their time to this important effort.”