Vets smiling about senior project

Ron Burtz

Several area veterans are able to smile again as a result of a Custer High School student’s senior project. Laney Carlin organized a free dental day for veterans April 16, which performed a range of dental procedures for 17 Southern Hills veterans, some of whom thought they would never be able to eat solid foods again.
Carlin said the idea originated last fall when she was in the family kitchen trying to decide what to do for her senior project. She said she wanted it to be in a career field she might be interested in pursuing, like dentistry.
Her mom, Amanda, suggested that her employer, Dr. Don Massa of Massa Dental in Hot Springs, might be interested in doing a free dental day for a specific group of people who struggled to afford dental care.
“My grandpa was a veteran and we have a long line of veterans in my family,” said Carlin in explaining her decision to serve that group.
In approaching Dr. Massa, she found he was indeed open to the idea and would donate his time and materials for the program. The date was set and the word was put out.
When the day arrived, Dr. Massa, his associate, Dr. Jaime Norton, and the hygienist were kept busy with minor procedures such as cleanings, fillings and extractions, but some patients came away with a full set of dentures. In all, Dr. Massa said about $17,000 worth of dental care was provided.
A boost to the program came when Associated Dental Labs of Rapid City also agreed to provide services free of charge. Dakota Regional Periodontist of Rapid City is also willing to do followups with the participants who need implants or other higher-level services.
The project received rave reviews from veterans who took part, many of whom said they had no dental coverage through the Veterans Administration, could not afford private dental insurance and thought they might never be able to afford the dental work they needed done.
One of those veterans is self-described Wyoming cowboy, James Spencer of Hot Springs. Spencer, who served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam era, suffered nine broken teeth 18 months ago when a steel bar hit him in the face. He said the injury caused him to suffer from infections and affected his ability to eat so much that he lost 75 pounds.
After other dentists told him he might need several surgeries at a cost of as much as $15,000 to correct the problem, Spencer said he was almost resigned to never being able to eat solid food again.
Referred by friends to Dr. Massa, Spencer scheduled an exam and was told he would need a full set of dentures. He was shocked and moved by happened next.  
“You could have knocked me over with a feather when they told me there was zero cost to me,” said Spencer. “I actually just broke down and cried. They took care of everything right there. I sure can’t say enough good things about them.”
Carlin, who sat in on the exam, said Spencer was the one veteran who made the biggest impression on her. After the consult she placed the call to the dental lab to ask if they would be willing to donate a set of dentures, which they were.
Spencer says his only challenge now is learning how to talk with dentures, but he’s glad to have his smile back.
“My wife says I’m ready for the movies,” Spencer quipped.
“It was a great thing,” said National Guard veteran Heather Thompson of Custer. “It was a real godsend for me because I don’t have dental insurance.”
She said the dentist extracted a badly cracked tooth which had been giving her problems.
The lack of dental coverage for veterans was a story told by several of the vets participating in the free dental day. Such was the case of brothers Mike and Clinton Carr of Custer.
Clinton served three tours in Vietnam and came back suffering with severe PTSD, Meniere’s disease and Agent Orange syndrome.
“I have battled the VA for over 50 years,” said Carr.
He said he had been paying for dental insurance out of his disability payments, but when that payment was pulled he could no longer afford it.
The dentist extracted two broken teeth that had been giving him trouble for three or four years, and now, thanks to the donations from the dental lab, he is looking into getting a partial plate.
“It’s really, really wonderful,” said Carr. “He’s a lifesaver.”
Drafted during Vietnam, Mike Carr served in the U.S. Army’s 8th Cavalry at various stations in Europe. At the age of 71 he has only six of his own teeth left on the bottom, but through the project, the lab is making him a full upper plate of dentures and a partial on the bottom.
“I was about to the point of eating gruel,” laughed Carr who said he’s looking forward to eating things like apples, carrots and fresh fruits again.
“I was just tickled pink,” Carr said. “I just can’t thank ’em enough.”  
Navy veteran Theresa Ray of Hot Springs needed only a cleaning on the dental day, but also learned she has two small cavities that need to be addressed.  
She also got to meet Carlin and had her picture taken with her. She said she is quite grateful for the project.
“It’s really helpful for some of us veterans out here who don’t have a lot,” Ray said. “It was just such a great program. It was quite a surprise!”  
Carlin collected several hundred dollars in donations for the program beforehand and some of participants gave cash donations that day, but the money was not needed because of the donations from the dentists and the lab, so that money will go into a fund for future needs.
Dr. Massa said he wouldn’t mind seeing the program continue in future years and is excited about the other providers that are getting on board. However, he said he would like to see it continue to be student-led.
“There are certain things you do in life that are well worth it and that would be one of them,” said Dr. Massa of the event.
Carlin, who plans to attend Presentation College in Aberdeen this fall and major in biology, said she feels good about how her project turned out, and also said she is grateful to the doctors, the other providers and the office staff for making it all happen.


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