Many veterans of the US Armed Forces are ineligible for dental care under the Veterans Administration (VA) system. Nisha Garg, a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Dentistry, recently decided to address this disparity and enabled local veterans to get the treatment they needed.
“With the desire to work with the veteran population, Tom Angerame, a classmate, and I began holding oral health seminars at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center for the high percentage of veterans who are ineligible to receive dental care at the VA facility,” Garg said.
Garg launched the program as part of her Schweitzer Fellows project. Named after physician and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer, Schweitzer Fellows spend a year addressing barriers that impact the health of underserved communities while developing lifelong leadership skills.
“My seminars provide information on how to properly maintain oral hygiene, along with how oral health directly relates to the health of the entire body,” Garg said.
However, months of these educational sessions showed Garg that many veterans were frustrated with their access to dental care. She and Angerame then contacted Clark Stanford, the school’s dean, and Dr. Susan Rowan, the associate dean for clinical affairs, about hosting a screening day for veterans. They expected 25 to 30 participants.
“However, days before the event, I started getting phone calls and emails from veterans all over the Chicagoland area and surrounding suburbs,” Garg said, noting that 73 veterans showed up for screenings. “That alone is very indicative of how high a demand low-cost dental care is amongst the veteran population.”
During the event, 22 students and 5 faculty members provided screenings. A few veterans were referred elsewhere due to more complex medical or dental needs. Others were accepted as patients by the college and will be assigned to a student dentist for ongoing dental care.
“As a veteran I would like to thank all of you for showing such concern for our dental health,” wrote Robert Hamilton, a veteran who received care, in a letter to the college. “Everyone was so nice and helpful. I appreciate your effort.”
“It was very exciting to witness these veterans finally getting the opportunity for actual dental care,” Garg said. “The students and faculty also expressed their enjoyment with working with such an appreciative and deserving population.”