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EAU CLAIRE – With a dental practice in Tomah, Dr. Jarius Houston sees many veterans and active-duty military patients. While volunteering his services at Give Vets a Smile Day at Chippewa Valley Technical College Saturday, Nov. 2, Houston noted a common problem within that patient group.
“Teeth grinding,” Houston said. “They’re not getting much sleep, and they’re working hard. A lot of the young men grind their teeth really hard. They grind their teeth in their sleep. We’re having them fitted for mouth guards to wear at night.”
To give back to the people who have given so much while facing high stress, CVTC has hosted Give Vets a Smile Day since 2015.
The event offers free dental care to veterans, who do not have dental care as part of the regular veterans’ benefits, unless the problem is service-related. Approximately 75 veterans are served each year by local dentists, hygienists, dental assistants, and CVTC students and faculty volunteering their time.
Over the years, a broad range of services have been added for the veterans, including COPD screening from volunteer local respiratory therapists and CVTC Respiratory Therapy program students, heart disease and diabetes education from CVTC Nursing students, assistive device assessments and recommendations from Physical Therapist Assistant students, a haircut from Cosmetology program students and physical therapist evaluations.
“In dental care, we’re providing a myriad of services, like cleanings, exams, fillings, extractions, and minor denture repair,” said Dr. Randy Shook, an Eau Claire dentist from Regis Court Dental and himself an Air Force veteran. “It’s more basic care, where they have dental pain or a broken off tooth.”
Robert Taylor of Eau Galle, who served in the Air Force from 1963-83, told a story similar to the experience of other veterans who have had no dental insurance. “I once needed some work done, but they wanted $1,500. I couldn’t afford it,” he said.
Give Vets a Smile Day has many repeat patients, and for some the once-a-year visit is all the dental care they receive. Taylor came last year. “They pulled a couple of teeth for me,” he said. “One was broken off at the gum line.”
Taylor is quite familiar with the kind of stress in military service that can lead some to grind their teeth. He worked in military intelligence.
“I got out when I collapsed from over-work,” Taylor said. “I was working 120-hour weeks. I was never in combat, but know I have PTSD.”
“Last year when I was here I had a teeth cleaning, X-rays, and a blood pressure check,” said Dennis Westphal, an Army Vietnam veteran who served 1967-69. “A lot of that stuff is really expensive. They do a really good job here, and we really appreciate it. They work us through really fast and they’re so organized.”
This year, Westphal was just looking for a regular check-up.
“I had dental insurance when I was with the paper mill,” Westphal said. “But I’d like to see some kind of dental insurance for older people. It’s gotten really expensive.”
Mel Lee of Whitehall, a 1965-68 Navy veteran, took advantage of the screening services offered by Dr. Curt Riley of Turning Point Physical Therapy in Altoona, but like others he came for the dental work.
“Rather than going to a regular dental clinic that charges so much, I came here,” he said. “I think they did a filling for me last year.”
“We wanted to provide better services for the veterans and also provide interdisciplinary experiences for our students,” said Donald Raymond, the Respiratory Therapy program director at CVTC, about the extra services available. “We’ve involved students from Heath Information Management Technology (HIMT), Associate Degree Nursing, Dental Assistant, Dental Hygienist, Respiratory Therapy, Barber-Cosmetology, and Physical Therapy Assistant.
“Many local dentists, hygienists who are graduates of our program or work with local dentists, plus our Dental Hygienist program students all volunteer their time to serve the veterans who served us,” said Pam Entorf, CVTC Dental Hygienist and Dental Assistant instructor.