ECU dental school’s new fund will support oral health care for veterans

A newly created fund in the ECU School of Dental Medicine will help offset the costs of vital dental care for U.S. military veterans who need it.

The ECU Smiles for Veterans Patient Care Fund, part of the school’s innovative Patient Care Funds program through the ECU Medical & Health Sciences Foundation and ECU Advancement, comes in the wake of success of the school’s events geared toward veteran care.

The ECU Smiles for Veterans Patient Care Fund will support oral health care for veterans. (Contributed photo)

Since 2018, the School of Dental Medicine has provided free dental care for more than 120 veterans in western North Carolina at its community service learning center (CSLC) in Sylva during ECU Smiles for Veterans events.

Held annually, the Smiles for Veterans event serves pre-screened veterans who need a variety of dental procedures; faculty, residents and students from the school and local offices provide the care. ECU Smiles for Veterans originated through a partnership between the ECU School of Dental Medicine, NC Serves­–Western and the Smoky Mountains Outreach Foundation—which has since shifted to the Veteran Smiles Foundation (VSF).

“The success of the ECU Smiles for Veterans events in Sylva led to the creation of this fund, which represents the ECU School of Dental Medicine’s permanent commitment to caring for veterans all across our state,” said Dr. Greg Chadwick, dean of the dental school. “A vital part of the school’s mission is serving special populations, and this fund makes it possible for the SoDM, its partners and supporters to work together in the name of oral health for those who have served.”

The fund stands to support current and potential programs and events that offer low- and no-cost dental procedures and preventive care to veterans in financial need.

“It means a lot to me because it shows people actually want to help each other,” said Lloyd Holland of Murphy, one of the first veterans to receive care through ECU Smiles for Veterans. “In North Carolina, people just care more about each other, and this event shows that. It’s hard for me to say what I feel, but it feels like a brick has been lifted off my back.”

Salutes and smiles

The ECU Smiles for Veterans Patient Care Fund will support veterans’ care that the school has worked to secure over the years through relationships with community partners with an interest in veterans’ health.

ECU provides dental care to veterans during annual Smiles for Veterans events. (Photo by Spaine Stephens)

“This is a fund that’s going to provide care for veterans, regardless of their ability to pay,” said Jon Jones, senior director of development for the School of Dental Medicine. “It’s a direct evolution of what’s been happening in Sylva and the school’s desire to serve an important population across North Carolina.”

According to statistics from the Veteran Smiles Foundation, of the more than 700,000 veterans living in North Carolina, only about 8% are qualified for dental care at a Veterans Administration dental clinic. More than 70,000 North Carolina veterans are estimated to be at or below poverty level.

The Veteran Smiles Foundation aims to provide required dental care to veterans in need in North Carolina, ultimately helping veterans achieve good physical and mental well-being by improving oral health. Beyond the partnership during ECU Smiles for Veterans events, the VSF funds the initial exam and required X-rays, as well as determining a care plan for each veteran.The respective ECU center completes the care.

“The bottom line is a full-spectrum dental care outcome for each participating veteran, leading to the desired goal to have that veteran consider the respective ECU CSLC as their ‘dental home,’” McCracken said.

NC Serves–Western connects veterans and their families with resources from housing and employment to health care. County veteran services offices have also been instrumental in testing and qualifying veterans for dental care, while local dental offices have provided funding and provider support.

The partnership has yielded an expansion of Smiles for Veterans events to CSLC-Brunswick County, where an event is slated for this fall—providing an option for veterans in eastern North Carolina. The Sylva event will continue as well.

A four-way win

The new fund is a part of the ECU School of Dental Medicine’s Patient Care Funds program, which is set up as a system that benefits people at every level of care—the school, the patient, the student provider and the donor/supporter.

The Patient Care Funds not only provide care to patients who meet financial criteria—they also provide students invaluable experience with building treatment plans, working with office staff and completing dental procedures. The funds also are a win for the school, allowing it to remain sustainable and offer affordable care. Finally, the donor is able to see the impact of their gift and know that their contribution made a true difference.

So far, close to 600 patients have received dental care that is fully or partially covered by Patient Care Funds. Each of the school’s eight CSLCs has its own Patient Care Fund, and other funds set up to serve special populations or named in honor of people and programs cover care on campus and in the school’s local clinics.

“The difference in what the school and the patient care funds gave me and what it would cost me is basically the cost of food for a month,” said one patient who received care in Ross Hall through the Patient Care Funds.

Life-changing events

Serving veterans is personal to the faculty, staff, residents and students in the ECU School of Dental Medicine.

Dr. Bob Manga, faculty director at CSLC-Sylva, reflected on a recent Smiles for Veterans event and shared why it hit home.

“All the faculty who provided care on the ECU Smiles for Veterans day had past military experience. In fact, the five dentists participating all had over 25 years of service to the Army, Navy or the Canadian Dental Corps,” Manga said. “We all have a strong commitment to taking care of our veterans. It was great to see the students, residents and assistants all interacting with veterans who served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Manga said the events have been successful because of the teamwork and partnerships behind the mission.

It means a lot to me because it shows people actually want to help each other. In North Carolina, people just care more about each other, and this event shows that. It’s hard for me to say what I feel, but it feels like a brick has been lifted off my back.
- Lloyd Holland of Murphy, one of the first ECU Smiles for Veterans patients

“The mission of ECU to serve the underserved, get involved in our community and to train future leaders was met when we started this program,” he said. “Our staff, NC Serves and Veterans Smiles organization did the hard work. To see three organizations strive to care of veterans is what service to others is all about.”

It’s also all about the newly created smiles of veterans who find hope in an avenue for dental care.

During a recent Smiles for Veterans event, one veteran hesitated to make a follow-up appointment as he calculated upcoming expenses—paying for dental care or purchasing Christmas presents for his grandchildren. The Navy veteran’s service career was cut short by an accident, and health problems piled up over the years, overwhelming his resources. When the story of his dilemma was shared, a donor covered the cost of his follow-up care.

“I can’t ask anyone to do that,” the veteran said upon hearing the news.

“You deserve it,” a staff member at ECU Smiles for Veterans replied. “It’s the least any of us can do for your service. You’ve done so much.”