Publisher's note: The author of this post, AUTHORNAME, is a contributor to ECU News Services.
ECU has been named one of the best universities in the country for veterans by the Military Times, thanks in part to numerous efforts to assist and support veterans, including providing free dental care to veterans during an annual Smiles for Vets event at the School of Dental Medicineís service-learning center in Sylva.
Gordon Gaebel Jr. reclined in a dental chair during ECU Smiles for Veterans event and took several deep, calming breaths. It wasn't until he locked eyes with his dentist for the first time that he felt his whole body relax.
Gaebel, a U.S. Navy veteran from Cullowhee, felt an immediate bond with Dr. Ed Connelly, also a Navy veteran who retired as a Captain last year after 30 years of service. Connelly is also division director of predoctoral clinical education for East Carolina University's School of Dental Medicine-his newest calling that caused him to cross Gaebel's path.
Faculty, students and residents from the dental school joined forces on Nov. 16 with local organizations to provide free dental care to veterans at no cost to them during the third such event hosted in a year by the school's community service learning center (CSLC) in Sylva.
Throughout the day, 41 veterans received care ranging from extractions and restorations to simple cleanings and other procedures meant to improve their overall health and their smiles. Along with the 40 veterans treated last fall and 20 who received care last spring, Saturday's appointments pushed the total number of veterans served through ECU Smiles for Veterans to just over 100 since fall 2018.
"It's hard to find the right words,"
Gaebel said after his appointment, raising his palms to signal that he needed a moment to process his experience. "Having that man who I knew was in charge and had the knowledge and education he has, I just relaxed. And him being a service man, we just bonded. It felt good calling him 'sir' again."
Fourth-year dental students Caitlin Ferguson and Trevor Staton teamed up to provide dental care to a veteran during the School of Dental Medicineís third ECU Smiles for Veterans event Nov. 16 at the community service learning center in Sylva. | Photo: Spaine Stephens
Care was provided by dental school representatives from the CSLC-Sylva, CSLC-Spruce Pine and the dental school's home, Ross Hall in Greenville; as well as assistance from Blue Ridge Dental Clinic in Cashiers. Other organizers included Smoky Mountains Outreach Foundation, which supports veterans who may need financial assistance; NC Serves Western, which helps veterans access resources that align with their financial needs; and county-based veterans services offices.
Retired Col. David McCracken, chair of Smoky Mountains Outreach Foundation, said ECU Smiles for Veterans was a vision initially based on the dental school's system of eight CSLCs situated across the state.
"That system provides much-needed access to quality dental care, coupled with the dual benefit of getting fourth-year dental students an opportunity to work in areas and interact with fellow North Carolinians who might be as diverse as the state is,"
McCracken said. "That pairing has been inspiring to observe in each of the three ECU Smiles for Veterans events over the past year."
While the main goal of the ECU Smiles for Veterans initiative has always been to provide dental care to veterans who otherwise might not be able to access it for various reasons, it is also about pausing to acknowledge the sacrifices veterans have made and that many still live with. This time, it was also about listening to their stories and vowing to share them - and ensuring that veterans like Gaebel are able to tell their own stories with more comfort and confidence in their smiles.
"This shows that the ECU School of Dental Medicine is true to its mission and is making efforts to improve the health and quality of life of all North Carolinians."
— Dental student Trevor Staton
'We owe them all'
The latest ECU Smiles for Veterans effort was led by Dr. Robert Manga, faculty director of CSLC-Sylva; Dr. Michael Garvin, assistant faculty director at CSLC-Sylva; Dr. T. Rob Tempel, associate dean for extramural clinical practices; Dr. David MacPherson, director of the advanced education in general dentistry residency program; and Connelly. All are veterans.
Dr. David MacPherson of the ECU School of Dental Medicine discusses a dental procedure with a veteran patient during the ECU Smiles for Veterans event. | Photo: Spaine Stephens
Saturday morning, before the first patient was seated in a dental chair, Manga gathered the volunteers in the conference room and pointed to the statement that stretched across the white board.
"We don't know them all, but we owe them all,"
he said. "That's the quote for the day. Remember it; that's why we're here."
Providers paired off and headed for their posts, checking schedules and going to the waiting room where they greeted their first patients and guided them to their treatment spaces. Before, during and after their procedures, the veterans were in no hurry to rush the process. Instead, they lingered to find common bonds and build bridges between their lives and their providers.