SMILES FOR VETERANS
ECU Smiles for Veterans provides dental care to those who served
Gordon Gaebel Jr. reclined in a dental chair during the ECU Smiles for Veterans event and took several deep, calming breaths. It wasn’t until he locked eyes with his dentist for the first time that he felt his whole body relax.
Gaebel, a U.S. Navy veteran from Cullowhee, felt an immediate bond with Dr. Ed Connelly, also a Navy veteran who retired as a captain last year after 30 years of service. Connelly is also division director of predoctoral clinical education for East Carolina University’s School of Dental Medicine — his newest calling that caused him to cross Gaebel’s path.
Faculty, students and residents from the dental school joined forces on Nov. 16 with local organizations to provide free dental care to veterans at no cost to them during the third such event hosted in a year by the school’s community service learning center (CSLC) in Sylva.
Throughout the day, 41 veterans received care ranging from extractions and restorations to simple cleanings and other procedures meant to improve their overall health and their smiles. Along with the 40 veterans treated last fall and 20 who received care last spring, Saturday’s appointments pushed the total number of veterans served through ECU Smiles for Veterans to just over 100 since fall 2018.
“It’s hard to find the right words,” Gaebel said after his appointment, raising his palms to signal that he needed a moment to process his experience. “Having that man who I knew was in charge and had the knowledge and education he has, I just relaxed. And him being a service man, we just bonded. It felt good calling him ‘sir’ again.”
Care was provided by dental school representatives from the CSLC-Sylva, CSLC-Spruce Pine and the dental school’s home, Ross Hall in Greenville; as well as assistance from Blue Ridge Dental Clinic in Cashiers. Other organizers included Smoky Mountains Outreach Foundation, which supports veterans who may need financial assistance; NC Serves Western, which helps veterans access resources that align with their financial needs; and county-based veterans services offices.
Retired Col. David McCracken, chair of Smoky Mountains Outreach Foundation, said ECU Smiles for Veterans was a vision initially based on the dental school’s system of eight CSLCs situated across the state.
“That system provides much-needed access to quality dental care, coupled with the dual benefit of getting fourth-year dental students an opportunity to work in areas and interact with fellow North Carolinians who might be as diverse as the state is,” McCracken said. “That pairing has been inspiring to observe in each of the three ECU Smiles for Veterans events over the past year.”
While the main goal of the ECU Smiles for Veterans initiative has always been to provide dental care to veterans who otherwise might not be able to access it for various reasons, it is also about pausing to acknowledge the sacrifices veterans have made and that many still live with. This time, it was also about listening to their stories and vowing to share them — and ensuring that veterans like Gaebel are able to tell their own stories with more comfort and confidence in their smiles.
‘We owe them all’
The latest ECU Smiles for Veterans effort was led by Dr. Robert Manga, faculty director of CSLC–Sylva; Dr. Michael Garvin, assistant faculty director at CSLC–Sylva; Dr. T. Rob Tempel, associate dean for extramural clinical practices; Dr. David MacPherson, director of the advanced education in general dentistry residency program; and Connelly. All are veterans.
Saturday morning, before the first patient was seated in a dental chair, Manga gathered the volunteers in the conference room and pointed to the statement that stretched across the white board.
“We don’t know them all, but we owe them all,” he said. “That’s the quote for the day. Remember it; that’s why we’re here.”
Providers paired off and headed for their posts, checking schedules and going to the waiting room where they greeted their first patients and guided them to their treatment spaces. Before, during and after their procedures, the veterans were in no hurry to rush the process. Instead, they lingered to find common bonds and build bridges between their lives and their providers.
Dental student Trevor Staton, who was completing one of his three fourth-year rotations at the CSLC–Sylva, said working with veterans close to his hometown of Hayesville solidified his plans to eventually return home to practice dentistry—and to prioritize caring for special populations like veterans.
“I’m overwhelmed to see how grateful they are,” he said. “This day exceeds the goals and hopes I had for it. Now I know firsthand the need for care here.
“I hope that those of us participating in Smiles for Vets and other outreach events begin to develop a service mentality and aspire to continue to volunteer at or even host similar events throughout our careers,” he added. “This shows that the ECU School of Dental Medicine is true to its mission and is making efforts to improve the health and quality of life of all North Carolinians.”
Tempel echoed the importance of the dental school as an active hand in improving the oral health care of every person it can, particularly special populations.
“This is the kind of incredible thing that can be done when leaders from the community and ECU put their minds and efforts together,” Tempel said.
With his dental procedures complete, Gaebel’s eyes lit up as he took another deep breath – this time not out of nervousness but out of relief and a renewed sense of camaraderie with those caring for him.
“For years, I’ve lived with dental problems but just didn’t have the extra money,” he said. “Any extra money I have goes to my family, my grandkids. I just can’t believe this is happening today. I just feel so relieved.”
The students treating the veterans saw firsthand how dental problems are linked to other health problems and body systems. They got real-world exposure to the fact that dental care is integral to treating the health of the whole patient.
“This is an eye-opening experience for us,” said Caitlin Mehaffey, a fourth-year student from Clyde who has participated in two of ECU’s three Smiles for Veterans events. “It helps us be aware of veterans’ realities and gives us experience working with patients who have complicated medical histories. A lot of that comes from the mental and physical trauma they went through because of their service.”
Brasstown resident and U.S. Army veteran Susan Davis received follow-up care for a childhood accident that had been repaired through assistance from Veterans Affairs in the past. Davis’s complications led her down several dead ends before she learned about ECU Smiles for Veterans.
“This program is a godsend; this whole place is,” said Davis, who worked as a dental assistant and hygienist during her service. “It means everything to me that I can finally get something done. It’s important for my self-esteem and vitality. People need to know that dental health affects your entire body and your livelihood and your mental health.”
‘They all have stories to tell’
Even with mouths numb from dental procedures, veterans were ready to open up in a different way—to speak of their service and sacrifice.
“To stop and listen to the stories these veterans have to share and ensure that they know their service is appreciated and not underestimated is a privilege,” said Dr. Greg Chadwick, dean of the School of Dental Medicine. “To show them our appreciation by providing dental care that will hopefully improve their quality of life is an honor.”
Connelly said his bond with Gaebel came from knowing what he had been through and understanding what questions to ask to make him and other veterans comfortable both with their dental care and with sharing what else they carry.
“Every veteran has a story,” he said. “You just have to know how to ask to get that out. They love to tell it. Once they truly see that we’re both veterans, they know we’ve been through the same thing. There’s a mutual trust, and because of that, when there’s an opportunity like this I can just go right back into my old habits and work to provide the best dental care that I can.”
After a chance to reflect on the day’s events, Manga said Smiles for Veterans brought out the best in the students, faculty and volunteers.
“It was a great example of community involvement,” he said. “It does take a village, and on Saturday it was the village that took care of our veterans.”