GREENSBORO — During her residency at the Fayetteville Veterans Administration Hospital, Dr. Lisa Jo Adornetto found out that not all veterans qualified for dental care.
“I just felt so bad for the veterans there because they put their lives on the line for the country,” she said.
She vowed that one day she would help as many as she could.
Now in Greensboro, with her own practice, Adornetto has been making good on that promise.
She calls it Veterans Dental Day.
Since 2009, on the eve of Veterans Day, staff at Adornetto’s office devotes themselves to cleanings, pulling teeth, fillings and other procedures for those who served. Adornetto is sometimes able to provide additional services for some veterans beyond the free clinic day.
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World War II veterans have darkened her door.
So, too, has Larry Campbell — a 75-year-old Vietnam-era Army pilot whose teeth had begun breaking off at the gums after taking a combination of medicines to treat other health issues.
She continued to see Campbell, who couldn’t eat for days at a time and lived off Extra Strength Tylenol before finding her, at no charge. He also had a mouth full of abscesses, which could have killed him because of the risk of infection traveling elsewhere in his body, said Adornetto, who has been practicing for more than 25 years.
“I wish I could pick all of them,” Adornetto said of taking on Campbell as a patient. “He really needed my help. Maybe it was a God thing because I couldn’t get him out of my mind.”
Campbell, who grew up in Greensboro, found out about Veterans Dental Day from his friend’s son-in-law, who heard it mentioned on a morning news show while he was getting his kids ready for school.
He gave Campbell the number and the veteran was in Adornetto’s chair that same afternoon.
“The first thing they did was thank me for my service,” said the admittedly-shy Campbell, who always preferred not bringing a lot of attention to himself because of his teeth. “They didn’t belittle me.”
Campbell’s journey through life up until that point had been complicated.
The country was still involved in the Vietnam War when he enlisted in the Army during the early 1970s. Campbell remembers the dirty looks and comments that were common for military personnel in uniform.
After he left the Army, medicine prescribed by the VA caused renal issues and something almost unimaginable — his once healthy teeth to break off at the gums.
It left Campbell in constant pain and he felt embarrassed by his lack of teeth.
“I saw the letter from the VA that informed him that he didn’t meet requirements for VA dental,” said Shearer Williams Bridges, a retired nurse and friend.
Bridges located a few grassroot efforts around the country that helped people without dental insurance, some of them for veterans. But they were limited in what they could do.
“In the meantime, our aging vets, many homeless, are suffering poor physical health caused by rotten, missing or abscessed teeth,” Bridges said.
Bridges’ husband had met Campbell through an amateur radio group.
Campbell, who works as a school crossing guard, over time told the couple his story.
“He’s a good guy who has had some tough breaks,” Bridges said.
It was her son-in-law who saw the free checkup advertised on a television station.
Said Bridges: “It really was an answer to our prayers.”
Adornetto can empathize with her patients.
Back in college, she had a bad habit of chewing on a pencil, which left her in pain and eventually required a root canal procedure on her bottom front teeth.
That experience would lead Adornetto to a career in dentistry.
“I said I want to help people like that,” said Adornetto, who graduated from Ohio State University with a doctorate in dentistry. She was later accepted into an advanced residency program at UNC-Chapel Hill, which included working at the Fayetteville VA hospital.
After working in another dental practice her first five years out of college, Adornetto went into business for herself.
At times during Veterans Dental Day, there have been up to 100 appointments with between three and five dentists on hand along with office staff.
“I couldn’t do it by myself,” Adornetto said.
Adornetto also has a network of oral specialists she can call who will remove more problematic teeth for free.
“I think it would be great if on Veterans Day if every office could do the same,” Adornetto said. “That would be my dream.”
At last year’s clinic, Adornetto started out with a full mouth X-ray for Campbell.
“We had the hardest time getting him to smile,” Adornetto recalled.
They removed the teeth that needed to come out immediately, and then set new appointments.
Campbell figures he’s still got two teeth of his own on top and bottom. The office staff made dental impressions and helped him get dentures.
“Dr. (Minaxi) Patel was very particular about getting everything to fit,” Campbell said. “I can eat just about anything I want.”
He says he also feels better physically. Dental problems are often tied to other health issues.
“I can’t say enough about what they’ve done for me,” said Campbell, who is now quicker to smile. “I couldn’t have paid the bill. That whole office is made up of angels.”
Bridges, the friend who is a nurse, hopes that short of the Veterans Administration extending care for those who served, other dentists might consider taking on a veteran a year who can’t pay.
“Just look at what it’s done for Larry,” Bridges said.
Contact Nancy McLaughlin at 336-373-7049 and follow @nmclaughlinNR on Twitter.