A salute to smiles
Annual event improves the oral health of veterans
As Army veteran Danny Sneed tells it, his smile is his style. That pride keeps him motivated to care for his oral health, but this time something dangerous slipped past his notice.
“He had a dental infection that he didn’t know was there,” says Lauren Sanchez, DDS, a second-year resident at UTHealth Houston School of Dentistry.
Sanchez caught Sneed’s infection—which, if left untreated, could have spread throughout his body—at Give Vets a Smile, an annual event at the School of Dentistry where veterans receive free oral health screenings, preventive care, or urgent care. Students, residents, and faculty from the School of Dentistry and Cizik School of Nursing at UTHealth Houston staff the event from start to finish.
“Some vets come in and find out there’s more going on than just a toothache,” Sneed says.
Yet many veterans living in poverty—especially those experiencing homelessness—never receive such timely interventions or even basic oral care. While the United States Department of Veterans Affairs offers a broad range of health services to veterans, only those who were prisoners of war or have certain degrees of service-related disabilities qualify for dental benefits—roughly 13% of veterans.
“When we ask veterans how long it has been since they had dental care, some will say decades,” says Bridgette R. Pullis, PhD, RN, Associate Professor, who leads the Veterans’ Bachelor of Science in Nursing program at Cizik School of Nursing and helped start Give Vets a Smile.
Pullis, whose father served in the Naval Construction Battalion (commonly known as “Seabees”) during World War II, saw the urgent need for dental care during her work with homeless veterans through U.S. Vets, an organization dedicated to ending homelessness among veterans. Many of the veterans Pullis encountered suffered from years of drug abuse that wrought severe damage to their oral health and left them missing teeth—a handicap in trying to find a job.
She approached Margo Y. Melchor, EdD, RDH, Associate Professor and Director of Community Outreach at the School of Dentistry, to determine if the schools could cooperate to leverage the talent of their faculty and students. Together, they launched the first Give Vets a Smile event in 2015.
“That first year, we were basically on a shoestring budget because no one knew us yet,” says Pullis, who worked with U.S. Vets to invite veterans in need of care. “But we had a great response and ended up seeing about 90 patients.”
In the years since and throughout the Many Faces. One Mission. campaign, community donors including Delta Dental Community Care Foundation and Amegy Bank have stepped in to help grow the program from a simple focus on pain relief to a range of oral health services offered by students, residents, and faculty from the School of Dentistry and Cizik School of Nursing.
The event begins with Pullis getting the word out to community veterans. She now has help from veterans like Sneed, who works at U.S. Vets.
I make sure everybody at our housing community knows,” he says. “I hand out flyers. I put up poster boards. I knock on doors. I tell them it’s more than just an opportunity to get your teeth cleaned, and that oral health can affect the whole body.”
Students from Cizik School of Nursing help veterans fill out medical history forms, which can help avert life-threatening complications during treatment. On the day of the event, they conduct the initial intake for each veteran—determining the specific issue that needs care, screening for COVID-19, and taking vital signs while looking for conditions like high blood pressure that might require monitoring throughout the day.
Dental and dental hygiene students and residents work under faculty supervision to provide cleanings, basic screenings, and procedures like tooth extractions and root canals. They also watch for signs of more serious conditions like oral cancer.
“After we complete their treatment during the event, we try to direct the veterans to a reliable dental provider they can afford, whether here at the school’s clinics or out in the community,” Sanchez says. “So, we're really trying to help them find a place where they can go and continue maintaining their oral health on a regular basis.”
Since the Many Faces. One Mission. campaign began in 2015, the event has provided over $275,000 worth of care to more than 500 veterans. Pullis and Melchor hope that with additional philanthropic support, they can expand Give Vets a Smile—currently held only once each year—to two days a year.
“It's not uncommon to have veterans call us asking how to obtain care,” Melchor says. “So even though we are doing our best to address this need, we still have many more veterans in need of help.”
That help has proven a lifeline for Sneed, who sees the event as a way to honor the sacrifices of those who served by providing quality oral health care that can relieve pain, restore confidence, and keep smiles on the faces of Americans who proudly wore the uniform.
“You have to admit, the people here are doing a great job,” he says with a grin. “And my smile’s the evidence.”