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Dental Squadron in charge of 10,000 smiles

by Nick Stubbs
Thunderbolt staff writer

Being a dentist isn't easy. With a recent survey ranking dentists as the second most despised group of professionals in America, a thick skin is as essential as all the training and skill that goes into the job. It can be discouraging, but the dentists and staffers of the 6th Dental Squadron are used to being part psychologist and part PR person, as they go about one of the most important parts of their profession: getting people into the chair.

It's a struggle all dentists understand well, but for Air Force dentists, keeping mouths healthy is mission-critical and a toothache can be the difference between shipping out when deployed or being grounded with dental problems.

"The Air Force is very serious about not letting people deploy if they are not in good dental condition," said Lt. Col. Craig Rice, general dentist. "There also is a very big emphasis on prevention."

The members of the Dental Squadron have seen it all, but say Air Force personnel in general have a good track record when it comes to dental health. That can't be said for all, however.

Capt. Robert Galella recalls a recent patient who had a cavity in every tooth, requiring much work to repair. It's an example of how readiness can be negatively impacted by dental problems, he said.

While checkups are a military requirement, it still can be a problem overcoming the fears of some. Those with a fear of the dentist have proven they will go to great lengths to dodge the doctor.

"That's sad," said Colonel Rice. "They are only hurting themselves."

For most the fear is not rational, he said. The experience almost never is as bad as fearful patients expect.

"Most of the time it isn't that bad and they end up walking out with a positive experience," said Captain Galella.

The approach to modern dentistry is to make the patient comfortable and to "put them in charge," said Colonel Rice.

"If they say they are experiencing discomfort or they want to stop, we let them make the call," he said.

Sedation is an option in most cases and when appropriate for the procedure, patients can opt for anesthesia. It isn't usually required for minor work, but the Dental Squadron is staffed for everything from routine checkups and doing fillings to oral surgery. There are 10 Air Force doctors and two civilian slots, filled by four dentists who rotate in and out. There are 33 other staffers in the office and working as assistants at the clinic, which adjoins the hospital.

Colonel Rice said the clinic serves about 10,000 patients, including personnel on and off base. The facility is equipped and staffed for about 6,000 so the schedule can be hectic. The pace means certain procedures get priority but Colonel Rice notes the clinic can do some cosmetic work such as tooth bleaching and even some orthodontics work but patients must go on a waiting list.

There are few dental health procedures the clinic cannot handle and patients are referred to private dentists if the needs are unique or the workload is high.

Air Force dentists are not in surplus, said Colonel Rice. A recent drive to recruit more started with a goal of 200 and ended with just eight. Part of the problem is the field can be very lucrative in the private sector. Colonel Rice and Captain Galella are passing in opposite directions, as Captain Galella prepares to enter civilian life. Colonel Rice left 12 years in private practice to return to the Air Force. He said for him it was a personal decision.

"I missed the camaraderie of the Air Force and the working environment," said Colonel Rice.

Captain Galella is finishing his mandatory hitch after taking an Air Force scholarship that helped put him through dental school.

Airman First Class Michelle Butnarau, a dental assistant, has her sights on on a nursing career after the military, although she said she might come back in the Air Force but as an officer.

But for those who have decided to dedicate themselves to dental health, despite the misplaced disdain that goes along with the job, it is all about the reward.

"People who were never willing to smile because of their teeth walk out happy and smiling," said Captain Galella. "That's a lot of reward for us." Colonel Rice agreed.

"We sometimes give people their smiles back and that can be a great feeling for you and them," he said. Diet can be as big a problem as upkeep and invariably when they encounter someone with multiple cavities or other problems, it turns out to be sugary drinks or food consumed in large amounts.

Both say fluoride is a modern wonder and they dismiss the claims by some that it is a dangerous toxin.

"They are right, it is a toxin, but so is salt in the wrong quantities," said Colonel Rice, who added everyone who visits the base clinic receives a fluoride treatment, even adults. The tap water on base also is fluoridated.

Colonel Rice says he understands the fears some people have of the dentist, but he says the angst usually starts early in life and parents can do much to make sure a child's first experience with the dentist is a positive one.

Captain Galella agreed, noting children should have their first visit when they are 3 to 5 years old. The idea is to make the initial visit a routine checkup with no dental work required, and no drilling or needles.

As for adults, both dentists say more people should floss. It's a procedure that often is ignored, but performed daily many of the dental problems seen could be avoided.

So just how do such benevolent souls end up being rated the second-most hated professionals? Captain Galella and Colonel Rice are not sure, but they know why they are not number one: attorneys hold the top spot.





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