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Dental clinic for veterans is 'the right thing to do'

By JULIAN EMERSON | The Leader-Telegram (Tribune News Service) | Published: November 5, 2017

After not seeing a dentist for nearly a decade, Steve Dahl knew he had problems with his teeth. Intermittent pain told him that.

But like many military veterans, Dahl, a 64-year-old Chippewa Falls, Wisc., resident, doesn't have dental insurance, so he put off visiting a dentist. Then Dahl heard recently about the annual Give Vets a Smile Day at Chippewa Valley Technical College, a third-year event designed to provide free dental care to veterans like him.

"I haven't been to a dentist in almost 10 years," Dahl said Saturday during the event at CVTC's Health Education Center, 615 W. Clairemont Ave., at the college's Eau Claire campus. "I knew I really needed this."

Dahl wasn't alone. The waiting room where he waited to have two teeth pulled after his teeth were cleaned was full early Saturday afternoon. A nearby room where dental services were provided was similarly busy as each dental chair was occupied by a veteran in need of oral care.

Pam Entorf, CVTC dental program director, said dental care is a significant need across the Chippewa Valley, in part because while Veterans Affairs provides health insurance to veterans, it doesn't offer dental insurance to the majority of them.

"The reality is most veterans lack dental coverage," she said. "It's a huge need."

That is certainly the case for Don Dusick, 77, of Lake Hallie. Without the Give Vets a Smile event, Dusick -- who also attended the event two years ago -- said he would go without dental care. On Saturday he received fillings and had a tooth pulled.

"I have limited finances, so this really helps out," the retired owner of a commercial heating and air conditioning business said. "A lot of people can't afford to go to a dentist."

David Till, Pierce County veterans services officer, said he works with many veterans for whom lack of access to dental care is a crucial issue. Till, 40, a 21-year veteran of the Wisconsin Army National Guard who served in Iraq, is among them. The father of three said he has put off seeing a dentist as he doesn't receive dental insurance through his workplace or the VA and prioritizes that care for his wife and children. On Saturday he had a checkup and a teeth cleaning.

"Now that I know what this is, I am going to send the veterans I work with here," he said.

Entorf started Give Vets a Smile Day three years ago after receiving a letter about a similar effort from a dentist in Kansas and decided to expand on it. The first year the program attracted 64 veterans, and last year, 70 attended.

"This year I think we're going to have more than that," she said as another veteran entered the waiting room.

On Saturday 13 Chippewa Valley dentists volunteered their time at the event along with 30 dental hygienists, dental assistants and others. Among those receiving services were veterans from World War II, wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan as well as others who were in the military but did not serve in war. Delta Dental of Wisconsin donated supplies.

Those receiving dental care also had access to respiratory therapy testing and education, courtesy of the CVTC respiratory therapy program. Students in that program took vital measurements of patients, tested lung capacity and discussed COPD and other lung disease with them.

Bre Bursaw, a 22-year-old respiratory therapy student from Mondovi, said working with patients provided the opportunity to use classroom learning in a meaningful way.

"It feels really nice to give back to veterans," she said shortly after collecting information from and sharing a laugh with a man who showed up at the event for dental care. "When we do this, we're not just students. We are therapists and we are helping people."

In addition to raising patient awareness about COPD, the respiratory therapy clinic that is part of Give Vets a Smile Day offers students "valuable hands-on experience," said Don Raymond, respiratory therapy program director at CVTC.

Veterans expressed gratitude for Give Vets a Smile Day, saying without it, their dental needs would go unmet. Now that he knows about it, Dahl said he would return if he needs more care.

"It's great that they do this," he said. "There are a lot of people in need."

Entorf smiled as she watched yet another veteran enter the waiting room. She said she is concerned about the lack of dental services available to veterans and grateful to have organized a way to help them.

"It's just the right thing to do," she said.

julian.emerson@ecpc.com

(c) 2017 the Leader-Telegram. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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