Author: Suzanne Baker
More than 70 Chicago area veterans are getting much-needed dental care as the result of a dental student being assigned a Vietnam War vet as a patient.
Nisha Garg was searching for community service project that would be an extension of her graduate studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Dentistry when one of the patients she was assigned spoke about the challenges veterans have finding affordable dental care.
That chance encounter motivated the alumna from Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville to teach monthly oral care seminars for veterans and offer a special dental screening day for them.
Before her final year of grad school, Garg said she wanted to find an outlet outside of school, yet still in the dental field, to channel her energy.
Throughout high school at Neuqua Valley, the 2009 graduate said the teachers and administrators encouraged students pursue a leadership role, whether serving as president of an organization, developing an initiative or creating new club.
As co-captain of girls tennis, Garg would help lead the Neuqua Valley team to first place in conference and sectionals and 11th place in state.
“That stayed with me,” she said.
“As a grad student, I was looking for something to call my own,” she said. “In high school, tennis was my thing; as an undergrad, it was dance.”
Garg found a new outlet in the form of an Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, though she needed to find a project to address health disparities in under-resourced communities.
A Vietnam War veteran would help her reach a group she never imagined.
Garg said while working at the college’s dental clinic, she was assigned a patient whose teeth had been broken over time and needed an emergency tooth extraction.
While the man had surgery to repair the gunshot to his mouth he sustained during combat in Vietnam, the veteran never received follow-up dental care from the Veterans Administration, something that shocked her.
“That was confusing and alarming to me,” she said. “That conversation opened a whole new realm I never considered or ever thought about.”
As an Albert Schweitzer fellow, Garg worked with the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center just blocks from the UIC Campus.
Her year-long outreach project started out as monthly seminars to provide veterans with tips on oral health, such as a how to self-screen for oral cancer and where to turn for lower-cost dental alternatives.
Over and over again at the meetings Garg said veterans told her they didn’t qualify for dental care from the VA so they never receive even routine screenings because they can’t afford it.
That new information prompted Garg to approach her faculty about holding a screening day for veterans.
“I was very scared about the resistance I would get,” she said. “I was very comforted the reaction was favorable.”
Susan A. Rowan, UIC College of Dentistry associate dean, said the college is supportive of its dental student Schweitzer Fellows and make every effort to ensure the success of their service projects.
“Nisha recognized that the veterans she encountered had a significant need for oral health care, and many had difficulty accessing affordable care,” Rowan said.
“When she proposed a screening day specifically to address the veterans’ needs, dean Clark Stanford and I fully supported the endeavor.
“Nisha’s vision took shape and became a reality with her dedication, hard work and engagement of fellow students and faculty.”
Five faculty members and 22 students screened 73 patients in one day.
Of those, 68 veterans were accepted as patients for follow-up care provided by UIC; five were referred elsewhere due to more complex needs, Garg said. Rowan said Garg made sure every veteran screened for dental care at the college was assigned to a student.
The veterans were overwhelmingly appreciative, Rowan said.
“The following week we received a letter from one of the veterans which read, in part: ‘As a veteran I would like to thank you all for showing such concern for our dental health. Everyone was so nice and helpful,'” she said.
Garg, now is pursuing a specialty in orthodontics at IUC, said the Chicago Dental Society is looking to turn her veterans screening day into a yearly event. “I hope I can be involved every year,” she said.
Her only regret throughout the project was that she was unable to fully assist the veteran who was her initial inspiration.
The man, who is homeless, never returned for follow-up visits, and “unfortunately there is no way to reach him,” she said.