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Oral surgery clinic treats soldiers

56th Brigade Logo

When the 56th Brigade of the Texas Army National Guard was notified they would mobilize in August, soldiers across the state prepared for deployment to Iraq. Those preparations included caring for one thing that could prevent them from going: their teeth.

Many of the soldiers needed emergency tooth extractions before they mobilized to prevent problematic teeth from causing greater problems while they’re overseas. With more than 3,000 soldiers in the 56th Brigade, that meant a lot of teeth to pull in a very short time.

With such an urgent need, a military contractor named OnSite IMR thought of asking dental colleges for help and thus contacted Texas A&M Health Science Center Baylor College of Dentistry. The Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery quickly responded, providing care to 44 soldiers – 20 of them in a single day – before they mobilized in August to Fort Stewart, Ga. The soldiers will be deployed to Iraq in November.

Dale Lewis, the department’s professional services clinical coordinator, received OnSite’s phone call late on a Friday afternoon before 20 soldiers would be bused Monday to Dallas for treatment. With Department Chair Dr. David Grogan’s endorsement, Lewis limited the emergency clinic’s patients to 10 that day, asked Dr. Marianela Gonzalez, undergraduate surgical education director, to manage the clinic, and prepared staff, residents and students for a busy day.

The day wasn’t only busy, it was challenging: because of military security, the patients’ records couldn’t be forwarded to HSC-BCD prior to their visit. So the OMS department had to decide patients’ treatment plans on the spot, based on the patient’s personal account and the OnSite IMR records they brought that day. Because the buses were waiting for the soldiers, OMS also had to work quickly.

Lewis says the day wouldn’t have succeeded without the support of the entire department. Nurse Peggy Lewis quickly prepared the instruments and trays Monday morning, students, residents and faculty treated the soldiers, Gonzalez ensured treatments ran smoothly, and professional services staff Jeana Cole and Nikki Hardwick processed insurance claims simultaneously with the soldiers’ treatments.

“The day went very well,” Grogan says. “We devoted 99 percent of our efforts to the soldiers that day. Everyone was happy to help, and I was very proud of everyone.”

The department treated 24 additional soldiers from the 56th Brigade on two other days in August. In total, the care included more than 50 extractions and one biopsy for the brigade. Lewis says the clinic saw an average of 13 patients an hour, far exceeding the normal average of eight patients an hour.

Several students who volunteered their summer break in the OMS clinic got to be part of the event. Lewis says some students pulled their friends out of studying in the library so they, too, could be involved in the action.

“It was a learning experience for the students,” Lewis says. “All of them were paired with residents, and in some less complex cases, a few did actual extractions themselves.”

According to the military contractor, the care HSC-BCD provided the soldiers filled a tremendous need. “Thirty percent of soldiers can’t deploy overseas because of dental needs,” says Joshua Perry, president of OnSite IMR. “In the Gulf War of the 1990s, the military realized dental problems were the leading reason for non-deployment, even exceeding medical reasons.”

The military has realized it is more cost-effective to do preventive dental care before soldiers are deployed than to send a soldier with dental problems overseas where treatment isn’t typically nearby. OnSite provides routine medical and dental care to the Texas Army National Guard, bringing mobile dental trucks to military bases and training sites. However, in more complex cases such as extractions, OnSite refers soldiers to traditional dental offices, and that’s how HSC-BCD came into the picture.

OnSite and HSC-BCD are planning to work together again in 2009, when the 72nd Brigade will be mobilized with another 3,000 soldiers.

“Using statistics, if 30 percent can’t be deployed until they seek dental care, that means we’ll have about 900 soldiers to treat,” Perry says. “We’d like to work with Baylor again to provide care to some of those soldiers before they go overseas.”