USC dental alumni organize annual event to provide free dental treatment to vets for Veterans Day
Since its start three years ago, Veterans Smile Day has helped more than 5,000 returning service members receive free much-needed dental care.
BY JAMIE WETHERBE MA ’04
Deryck Pham DDS ’04 always wanted to serve his country. “That’s why I joined the military,” he says.
Pham spent three years in the Marines — including seven months in Iraq at a Level 1 Trauma Center — working as a dentist and triage doctor.
“I saw firsthand the PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] going on and everything these men and women were going to have to deal with when they came back to the States,” he says. “I knew when I got out, I wanted to give back to my fellow veterans.”
In 2012, Pham started Veterans Smile Day, a day (or days) in which hundreds of dentists across the country offer free dental care to veterans. Timed to coincide with Veterans Day, this year’s event runs Nov. 6–10.
Few vets have dental benefits
Many service members don’t qualify for full benefits once they return from active duty. To receive full dental care, veterans must meet certain eligibility requirements, including having a service-related dental condition, having been a former prisoner of war or being considered 100 percent disabled, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
“It’s very rare for a vet to be 100 percent disabled,” says Karen Irani DH ’00, DDS ’03. “I found that of the 22 million vets in the country, 90 percent don’t receive dental benefits.”
Additionally, long wait times and limited care at Veterans Affairs hospitals make treatment difficult — even for those who qualify.
“My dad was a veteran, and I grew up with him having to leave for three to six months at a time,” says Irani, one of the first providers to participate in Veterans Smile Day. “I understand sacrifices made by service members and their families, and I thought this was a great cause.”
In 2014, Irani and Pham teamed up to raise awareness and take Veterans Smile Day to a national level.
Through her connections with the American Dental Association and other organizations, Irani reached out to a wider network of providers to promote the event.
“So many people and organizations weren’t aware that veterans don’t get dental benefits,” says Irani, who also helps dentists in California organize and schedule patients for Veterans Smile Day. “When doctors hear that, they want to give back. Any doctor can give one day a year to veterans so that makes it easy to volunteer.”
In three years, the program quickly grew from 30 participating providers to more than 600. So far, as many as 5,000 veterans have been treated.
“When people hear about it, they immediately ask how they can help,” Pham says. “Whether it’s opening their practices or going to someone else’s office to participate, the goal is to make it an official day across the country where dentists serve veterans.”
A golden opportunity
Pham says his education at USC helped drive his desire to give back. “Working at the dental clinic at the Union Rescue Mission in Downtown L.A. and in the mobile clinic treating kids at underserved areas, USC’s always pushed us in those areas,” he says.
Adds Irani, “The USC spirit has always been about giving back to the community, and I learned that from day one.”
During Veterans Smile Day, participating dentists can decide what treatments they’re comfortable providing.
“Some do cleanings and exams,” Pham says. “We do everything except dentures and crowns, so check-ups, X-rays, cleanings, fillings, extractions and root canals.”
Vietnam vet Alan Mac Farlane has had teeth drilled, filled and cleaned during Veterans Smile Day.
“It’s a golden opportunity,” he says. “I’ve known people [without dental insurance] who pulled out their own teeth.”
The 71-year-old learned about the event through his local Veterans of Foreign Wars post and has been treated at Pham’s office for the past three years. “He has a good heart, and he’s a veteran — that makes a difference,” Mac Farlane says. “They treat us well — there’s coffee and donuts, and I get to talk to a lot of other veterans.”
Offering more than free care, many dentists turn the day into a celebration to honor veterans, complete with food, banners and other special treatments.
“I haven’t had one doctor say they’ve had a bad experience,” Irani says. “The veterans are all so grateful.”
My way of saying “thank you”
For Sean Naffas DDS ’04, who has been participating in Veterans Smile Day for three years, one veteran stands out.
“A patient found out last-minute about Veterans Smile Day,” Naffas recalls. “After we were done, she burst into tears, and I asked if I’d hurt her.”
The woman explained that she had an upcoming job interview, and Naffas had given her the confidence she needed. “I asked her to call me and tell me how it went,” he says. “She called a week later very appreciative, sharing the good news she got the position.”
Born in Afghanistan, Veterans Smile Day participant Afsana Danishwar DH ’00, DDS ’06 has a unique connection with patients she sees.
“For the last 10 or 15 years, there have been troops going to Afghanistan helping my people become liberated,” says Danishwar, who’s treated about 30 veterans as part of the program. “I felt this was my way to give back and say thank you.”
She’s also able to learn more about the country she left as a child.
“I’ve seen so many veterans who served in Afghanistan and hearing their stories has been so interesting,” she says. “One patient told me how grateful the people there are of the troops. It made me really feel proud of my people that service members are being treated well and appreciated.”
Like Danishwar, many participating dentists want to show appreciation to those who have served and see Veterans Smile Day expand.
“Everyone in this program hopes and strives for it to become a national event, where dentists across the country offer a Veterans Smile Day in November,” Danishwar says.
Adds Naffas, “I feel very strongly that this is going to become a nationally recognized day. It started with a few of us, and every year, it’s grown exponentially. I think it’s going to go way beyond what Karen and Deryck have dreamed of.”