ECU dental students, providers reflect on event for veterans’ care

The ECU School of Dental Medicine provided dental care for dozens of veterans last month during the school’s annual ECU Smiles for Veterans program at its community service learning center (CSLC) in Sylva.

Students, faculty and volunteer providers teamed with local veteran organizations to provide the care at no cost to veterans from western North Carolina counties. The program began in 2018 and has provided care for more than 120 veterans to date.

“Veterans have done so much for the country, and this event served as an opportunity to give back,” said Amina Garba, a fourth-year dental student completing a rotation at the CSLC–Sylva. “It’s great to be part of a program that can treat underserved communities that do not have affordable and accessible dental services.”

While ECU Smiles for Veterans is a day set aside for serving veterans through dentistry, the students, providers and volunteers at the event came away with lifelong bonds with patients and each other—and new perspectives on what it means to fulfill a mission for the good of others.

For love and honor

Crystal Cochran, a dental assistant at the CSLC–Sylva, is vice president of the Jackson County Veterans Organization and looks for every opportunity she can to serve veterans.

That determination comes from being part of a community with deep roots in the U.S. Armed Services—but it is also part of her own story of tragedy and healing.

Cochran lost her husband, Staff Sergeant Justin Cochran, in 2016 from service-related issues while he was stationed at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas. As a Gold Star Wife, she provides friendship and support to other spouses and families who have lost loved ones to military-related causes.

Veterans from western North Carolina received dental care during the dental school’s annual Smiles for Veterans event in November.

Veterans from western North Carolina received dental care during the dental school’s annual Smiles for Veterans event in November.

Cochran also shares her story with veterans’ and families’ groups locally and beyond, but she said it was particularly meaningful to help provide dental care to veterans in Sylva—where she and Justin grew up and their story began.

“I can’t explain what it felt like to participate in such a special event,” Cochran said. “Helping veterans is something I hold near and dear to my heart. Every story and every face hits home with me because I truly understand the dedication and sacrifices made for my freedom.”

Providing care to veterans is vital to the CSLC–Sylva’s mission, she added, because it offers new hope and resources to a special population of mountain veterans.

“We are a small community with so much love and compassion to give,” Cochran said. “What better way than to give these veterans a smile after all they have given us?”

A mission in camaraderie

Each of the ECU Smiles for Veterans events has been held at the CSLC–Sylva in order to serve patients in western North Carolina through partnerships with the Smoky Mountains Outreach Foundation’s Vet Smiles pilot program, NC Serves Western and other local veteran organizations and dental offices.

Retired Col. David McCracken, founder of Smoky Mountain Outreach Foundation, credits the joining of forces to ECU School of Dental Medicine leaders Dr. Greg Chadwick, dean; Dr. Rob Tempel, associate dean for extramural clinical practices; Dr. Robert Manga and Dr. Michael Garvin, CSLC–Sylva’s faculty director and assistant director, respectively.

“Because all four are veterans, the concept was as easy to ‘market’ as waking up in the morning,” McCracken said.

That teamwork model has also opened the doors to the possibility of expanding the program to other communities in the state.

“The ECU Smiles for Veterans day enables us to thank those who served our country and are in need of dental care,” Manga said. “It is as example of the dental school fulfilling its mission to help the underserved and become part of our community.”

“Opportunities like ECU Smiles for Veterans are important to the success or our mission and take a whole clinic team effort to be successful,” Tempel said. “The entire Sylva CSLC team, with support from community partners and several family members, truly came together to keep the effort going despite the pandemic making it very difficult.”

With so many of the event’s coordinators veterans themselves, there are added layers to the meaning and conviction behind the provision of care and resources.

Students, faculty and staff provide care to veterans during the dental school’s annual ECU Smiles for Veterans event.

Students, faculty and staff provide care to veterans during the dental school’s annual ECU Smiles for Veterans event.

“Because another key collaborator in our effort, NC Serves Western, is also led by another veteran, Brandon Wilson, it was possible to weave in the important capability to enroll the prospective veterans in need of dental care and also validate their individual status in a way that supported the intent to serve as many qualified veterans as available funds might permit,” McCracken said. “Veteran service officers like Leigh Tabor in Macon County had the initiative to orchestrate the Smoky Mountain Veteran Stand Down and the willingness to innovate how dental care might be improved for those veterans who participated.”

In addition to funding sources through the Smoky Mountains Outreach Foundation and the other partners, McCracken said much of the care provided at this year’s event came from grants.

The Highlands Cashiers Health Foundation, the North Carolina Dental Society Foundation and the Nantahala Health Foundation each approved grants to the Smoky Mountains Outreach Foundation to enable all of the veterans who participated in the 2020 ECU Smiles for Veterans to not only receive a wide range of procedures during the event, but also have the remainder of their dental care plans funded, he said.

“Several more veterans who needed procedures ranging from preparatory extractions and denture sets were also able to receive financial support,” McCracken said, “thanks to donations from other organizations such as Daughters of the American Revolution, Military Officers Association of America, Vietnam Veterans of America as well as generous private individual donors.”

Finding common ground

Over the years at ECU Smiles for Veterans events, stories are shared and bonds are formed. Many veterans who have moved to North Carolina from other states observed that their new home state is particularly welcoming to veterans. Relief shows in their faces as they find much-needed care and a welcoming community.

It is another homecoming of sorts.

Dental Assistant Amber Moore has participated in every ECU Smiles for Veterans event to date.

“It is my favorite day of the year,” she said. “This population of heroes are a group that is really underserved in the area of dentistry. It is my honor to serve them and to help them with their oral health. It is humbling to get to know them and hear their stories. On this day, it is all about them. We not only treat their dental needs we give them a listening ear and someone to talk to.”

Moore met one veteran last month who served in the Vietnam War; he was a pilot and received the Distinguished Flying Cross medal for his service. Upon his arrival back on American soil, he didn’t wear his uniform—he had heard about the poor reception and mistreatment of troops by some of those who opposed the war.

“Today he is very proud,” Moore said. “He has business-size cards he gave out with his picture beside his plane and all his medals listed on the back. He gave them out proudly.”

Fourth-year dental student Victoria O’Neal said those stories brought to life the level of sacrifice veterans experience for the sake of others.

Flags representing the branches of the U.S. military wave outside the ECU dental school’s community service learning center in Sylva.

Flags representing the branches of the U.S. military wave outside the ECU dental school’s community service learning center in Sylva.

Each veteran we were able to treat had a unique story to share and they were extremely grateful for the treatment they were receiving that day,” said O’Neal, a Winston-Salem native who hopes to return there to practice pediatric dentistry. “Smiles for Vets was able to add dimension to my experience as a fourth-year dental student because it reminded me why I fell in love with dentistry to begin with. This day reminded of the importance of serving the underserved and using our abilities to better our community.”

Part of those efforts this year included heightened safety measures because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sandra Parris, practice manager at the CSLC–Sylva, ensured there was adequate personal protective equipment throughout the day and led efforts to keep the event running smoothly and safely.

“I am very proud of how my team steps forward during each of these events,” Parris said. “I love to see them pitch in and work to together to make this happen. We are all exhausted at the end of the day, but the gratification is so rewarding. I enjoy seeing the camaraderie of my team as we service those wonderful folks that have made it possible for us to live in the ‘Land of the Free.’”

For Garba, having the chance to witness the event during her rotation in Sylva reinforced her dream of caring for a variety of underserved populations in the state.

“I love that ECU’s mission is to treat the underserved communities in North Carolina,” said Garba, a Greensboro native who begins a residency next year learning to care for special needs patients. “I’ve had the privilege of working with children, rural communities and minorities, and now I feel like this event has exposed me to gaps in care for the veteran population and ways I can be more proactive in their dental care in the future. We have an instrumental role in changing the future of oral health care in North Carolina.”