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My View: Giving back to vets one smile at a time

By Iswara Parvathaneni

Imagine spending years without going to the dentist, not knowing if the pain in your mouth is just a small inconvenience or a larger issue you can’t afford to get treated. Well, for one local veteran, this circumstance was all too real.

His name is Leonard and he and his wife had been looking for affordable dentistry for two years – never being able to find anything within their means. Leonard’s teeth had reached a point where his only remaining option was removing all of his teeth, which were in extremely poor condition, and getting dentures.

Fortunately, the day I met Leonard in early September was the day we offered him this treatment plan for free. We took care of him onboard the MouthMobile, a 42-foot dentist office on wheels, in Buffalo. The look on his face and his tears of happiness are something I will never forget.

This experience was part of Aspen Dental’s Healthy Mouth Movement, a community-giving initiative designed to deliver free dental care and oral health education to veterans across the United States.

A major component of the Healthy Mouth Movement is the MouthMobile, which will visit 30 communities in 24 states this year. At our Buffalo event, fellow volunteer dentists and I treated 26 veterans equaling almost $10,000 in free dentistry.

Sadly, Leonard’s situation is not unique in the veteran community. Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs does not cover dental benefits unless a veteran is 100 percent disabled, among other classifications, a requirement many do not meet.

It seems like I meet a Buffalo-area veteran every other day who is in poor oral health and is in serious need of dental care.

These veterans are like many people throughout the country, and right here in our community, who struggle to access oral health care when needed, due to barriers such as finances, availability, time or fears. Those barriers kept more than 150 million Americans from visiting a dentist last year.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 47 of 62 counties in New York State are considered dental health professional shortage areas or “dental deserts” – meaning there is not enough access to dentists in huge swaths of the state, particularly caused by cost or distance.

What’s worse, according to a recent survey on oral health, nearly 40 percent of Americans say they have limited or will limit dental care due to their financial situation, despite 80 percent of respondents knowing that delaying routine dental visits will cost more money over time.

Nearly one in five Americans would fix problems with their car ahead of addressing pain in their mouth, and this is at a time when research shows the connection between your oral health and your overall health is closer than ever.

If you don’t believe me, ask Leonard. These extractions and dentures are changing his life, and he is grateful that he can finally give his mouth, and his health, the care it deserves.

I couldn’t be more proud of the volunteers who made the Buffalo MouthMobile event possible and who provided all of the veterans, including Leonard, something in return for their service in our nation’s armed forces.

By providing free dental care, we can give our veterans and our community the boost they need to continue to make Buffalo a vibrant and beautiful place.

Iswara Parvathaneni, D.D.S., owns Aspen Dental practices in Buffalo and Rochester. He is a graduate of New York University College of Dentistry.

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