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Student dentists aim to fill veterans’ dental coverage gap

The sound of a trumpet blaring over the loudspeaker is the first clue that this is not a regular clinic day at the UNLV School of Dental Medicine.

The waiting crowd comes to attention when the national anthem follows. This is the Sergeant Clint Ferrin Dental Clinic, 1001 Shadow Lane, founded in 2008 by John Ferrin, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas, dental school graduate, in memory of his brother, Sgt. 1st Class Clint Ferrin, who was killed in action in Iraq in 2004.

Todd Davis, 27, president of the student-run organization, says most people “assume that those who have served in the military are taken care of by the Veterans Administration,” but he added that “the majority are not able to receive dental benefits.”

Nevada ranks in the top five nationally of veterans per capita, according to the Nevada Office of Veterans Services 2008 Legislative Summit report. One in nine residents is a veteran, but the state ranks 48th nationally in benefits to veterans.

The clinic operates one Saturday each month. It is completely student-run and supervised by members of a licensed dental faculty who volunteer their time.

During the four-hour clinic, about 45 patients are seen by the student doctor volunteers, providing a full range of dental procedures, root canals and tooth extractions.

“We have about 500 people on the waiting list now, and we tell them it will be six to 12 months before we can see them,” Davis said.

Combat veterans and veterans in pain are moved to the top of the list.

Ray Borders, a U.S. Air Force sergeant photographer who served 67 combat missions in Vietnam, has been without teeth since 2006. The VA pulled his remaining teeth before his open-heart surgery, and because he was listed as only 50 percent disabled, he was deemed ineligible for dental benefits to replace his teeth. He jokes that even though he has “tough gums,” when he eats corn on the cob, “it just rolls around in my mouth, and then I swallow it.”

His student doctor, Chris Capua, a member of the Nevada National Guard, said he is honored to work with Borders.

Under the supervision of oral surgeon Richard Hamilton, Capua performed a surgical removal of excess bone to produce a better-fitting denture.

After 9/11, Hamilton sold his longtime Las Vegas oral surgery practice and went back into active service as a decorated captain in the U.S. Navy. Now retired, he teaches part-time at the dental school and has volunteered at every Ferrin Clinic session since its inception.

Hamilton has a deep knowledge of military history. He knows the patients in the clinic and can tell each of his stories. Hamilton and fellow instructor Dr. Andrew Ingel agree that the students learn much from the veterans.

Most of the patients are “medically compromised,” Hamilton said, and the students gain valuable experience from this endeavor.

Ingel said, “This clinic is really an important part of their education.”

Walter Bellard, 61, a Purple Heart recipient, was dumbfounded when he was told that after his bottom teeth are pulled, he will have dentures made free. He joked that he hasn’t had to buy a mask on Halloween because of his missing teeth.

When informed by Davis that the Ferrin Clinic would cover the expense of his new teeth, he questioned how that could happen. Davis explained that the clinic pursues grants, holds fundraising events, accepts donations and has community partners that donate services. Bellard called it “a blessing.”

Borders echoed that sentiment. “We all come in here in a variety of shapes and sizes,” he said, and the students “really care.” When asked how he would rate his experience at the clinic, he said the students are “learning step by step,” and his care has been “excellent.”

The clinic was awarded the 2009 Bud Tarrson Dental School Student Community Leadership Award by the American Dental Association in recognition of its outreach program.

Davis said he hopes other dental schools develop their own version of the Ferrin Clinic “to provide those who have served our country with a means to address their oral health care needs. We believe they deserve this service.”

To become a patient, to donate or to learn more about this 501(c)(3) organization, visit veteransdentistry.org.

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