Case Western Reserve University dental students give back on Veterans Day

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Every year since 2017 students at Case Western Reserve University School of Dental Medicine have honored veterans and military personnel with free dental care on Veterans Day.

“I wanted to do something for the community,” said Dr. Ali Zaker Syed, who started the Veterans Day clinics and oversees the instruction of the students who run it. Syed said the inspiration was his own father, who served in the Indian Army.

“I wanted to do something for people who serve for their country,” he said.

Veterans received an exam and select X-rays for free, plus teeth cleaning for just $25. In addition, those who signed up for comprehensive care treatment received a voucher for $100 off future services.

Under the supervision of dental school faculty members, the dental school’s third- and fourth-year students and residents treat more than 8,000 patients at discounted prices every year.

Syed said he hopes that by offering special services on Veterans Day, he will be able to engage those veterans who have put off getting regular care.

“Right across the street we have a veterans clinic,” Syed said, “but not all veterans are eligible for dental care.”

That’s the case for Jeffrey Trowbridge, a 58-year-old former Army medic. Trowbridge flips houses and does landscaping and odd jobs for a living. Since he is self-employed, he doesn’t have health insurance benefits through an employer. He does have medical benefits through the Veterans Administration, however, but they don’t include dentistry.

“Here in Cleveland, they take care of me like I’m a king. I think we have a wonderful VA system,” Trowbridge said. “Being a vet they take care of me physically, but they don’t do dental.”

Consequently, Trowbridge put off taking care of his teeth for a long time. When he decided he needed to see a dentist, he called around to other low-cost clinics and found a spot, but would have to wait six months.

“I need some root canals and some caps and some other things,” said Trowbridge, adding that when he called the dental school he was told, “ ‘Oh you’re a veteran? You can come in on Veterans Day and we will start you right away.‘ So I’m here.”

Jordan Pavlak, on the other hand, has dental insurance through his job, but he said he has a fear of dentists.

“I have somewhat of a dental anxiety,” Pavlak said. The 38-year-old former Marine said his fear stems from a traumatic experience of having his wisdom teeth removed during bootcamp with very little anesthetic and almost no post-surgical care or pain relief.

“That wasn’t a pleasant experience,” he said. “I think I got one Tylenol before I left, and as soon as that lidocaine wore off, you go right back. And it’s not like they are ‘Oh this guy just had surgery, let’s be a little gentle.’ No, they go right back to you’re a scumbag. I mean if you’ve ever seen the movie Full Metal Jacket, that is it.”

Pavlak said he went the clinic specifically because of the students. Not only to help them learn, he said, but also because he felt that students, because they are still learning and being carefully supervised, would be gentler with someone who is anxious.

“I felt more comfortable. It’s like a step in the right direction of going back to see a regular dentist. Baby steps,” Pavlak said.

Pavlak said he thinks he’ll be back.

And that’s just what Syed is hoping for the 60,000 veterans in the Cleveland community who may be in need of regular dental care.

“We definitely want to provide a dental home for them,” said Syed. “That’s my main goal.”

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