Local veterans and National Guard soldiers now have something to smile about - literally. Many are getting free dental care thanks to a UNLV program honoring a fallen soldier.
The Sergeant Clint Ferrin Memorial Clinic began nearly two years ago, initially treating National Guard troops deemed nondeployable because of poor oral health. It now serves all veterans who can't afford dental care.
Deployed soldiers often neglect their oral health. "The last thing they are thinking about is brushing and flossing," said John Ferrin, a UNLV dental student and Army National Guard member who started the clinic. "Soldiers are focused on their mission and staying alive. Unfortunately, the bone loss from periodontal disease is not easily replaced."
A Brother's Love
The program came about because Ferrin wanted to pay tribute to America's veterans. Ferrin's brother, Clint, a member of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division, was killed in Iraq in 2004 by an improvised explosive device while leading his platoon in a mission.
"We are here to give back to those who have sacrificed so much for us," Ferrin said. "My brother instilled in me a respect for veterans. This respect, in combination with the neglect of [Clint's] own oral health while serving, is how the idea for the clinic began."
Clint had several teeth that caused him pain while serving and he eventually lost a tooth during training. It took him two years to get a temporary prosthetic, which wasn't worn often because of its poor fit. "Unfortunately, Clint never had the opportunity to get an implant to help restore not only his smile but also his self-confidence."
In recognition of the dental school's outreach efforts, the American Dental Association Foundation awarded the 2009 Bud Tarrson Dental School Student Community Leadership Award to the program.
Although the clinic is something to be proud of, Ferrin said that his brother would be embarrassed by all the attention. "However, he loved veterans and he loved this country. Deep down he would feel honored and humbled that his name was used to reach out to this great country's veterans."
The dental school has held 11 clinics, with about 30 patients receiving free treatment at each session, including more than 120 veterans. Dental students, supervised by licensed dentists, provide treatments such as cleanings, restorations, extractions, and crowns.
Antonio Montenegro, president of the UNLV Student Veterans Organization, has benefited from the free clinics - having his teeth cleaned, cavities filled, and crowns replaced. "It is more than just the dental work, it is these efforts that inspire our organization to keep giving back to the veterans on campus and in the community."
Montenegro served in the Army for three years, participating in Iraqi Freedom. He recently received his bachelor's degree and plans to attend graduate school at UNLV.
Ferrin hopes other schools will follow UNLV's lead and start similar clinics.
"It is inspiring to see the faculty donate their talents and time on behalf of the veterans," Ferrin said. "The gratitude the veterans show for the treatment is touching and I want others to experience the same."
The ADA Foundation created the E. Bud Tarrson Access to Oral Health Care Award in 2003 and each year recognizes one exemplary volunteer community service project developed by dental students enrolled in a predoctoral dental education program.