The photos look like a Worst Of series showing bad teeth and bad dentistry: teeth broken or rotten, destroyed dentures, a mouth with worn gums and a couple of jagged teeth, or no teeth at all. They belong to faces that seem to be hesitantly smiling, lips up, perhaps trying to cover up the damage.
These are the before photos. There’s another set of after photos. And dentist Curtis Jansen can tell a story about almost each patient, and only part of it has to do with their dental history. One man was housebound for nearly six years because he didn’t want to be seen without teeth. Another described his confidence going out the window every time he took out his partial dentures, a reminder that he doesn’t have teeth.
Jansen is excited as he shows the before/after comparison, including the X-rays. Some before images show pockets where infections burrowed into the gums. Then there are bright lines where metal implants have been screwed into the jaw.
It’s the personal stories more than the dental records that make Jansen excited about Dentistry4Vets, a nonprofit that’s been providing dental care to veterans since 2018.
“I don’t know who benefits more, the vets from those smiles, or me,” Jansen says.
Jansen moved to Monterey County 23 years ago and opened his dental practice, CEJ Dentistry in Monterey. He got settled, raised a family and made a good living. He always felt like he needed to do more but volunteer opportunities didn’t make sense. So when Santa Cruz veteran and oral surgeon George Yellich came to him with the idea for Dentistry4Vets, Jansen got immediately on board.
“I can come in and donate my time,” he says. “In this crazy world we live in, I feel guilty. It’s hard for me to go to do dentistry in Mongolia – I can’t. And then who better to take care of than our veterans?”
Dentistry4Vets has so far provided dental work to more than 120 veterans, at no cost to the patients. They’ve provided everything from basic dental hygiene to double all-on-4s – a procedure to replace teeth with dentures secured to four implants on the top and bottom of the jaw, costing more than $60,000. The nonprofit’s goal is to fill a gap in Veterans Health Administration coverage.
In order to qualify for dental care, veterans must have been a prisoner of war or have a service-related disability rated 100 percent. “It’s a high bar to qualify for,” says Hugo Ferlito, executive director of Dentistry4Vets.
One who fell through those cracks is 76-year-old retired Army Capt. George Worthy, who lives in Gonzales (and is a former city councilman there). “At the VA, dental work is very basic, or it’s too expensive,” Worthy says. He knew he couldn’t afford the implants he needed, until he was referred to Dentistry4Vets, and received about $25,000 worth of dental care from Jansen.
“Everything was first-class,” Worthy says. “I just walk around shaking my head all the time saying, ‘Thank you God.’ It’s one of the greatest services I’ve seen offered to veterans, ever.”
Worthy has a rainbow of a smile, as Jansen describes it, and he is not afraid to show it. It’s now a mixture of real teeth, older implants and four new ones Jansen put in. The new implants are in the back of his mouth, so they don’t drastically change his appearance, but still give a confidence boost, he says.
Part of that comes from being treated with dignity in the health care system. In particular, Worthy says the office manager at CEJ Dentistry greets patients without judgement. “The people with anxiety or depression, this sort of thing lights them up and makes them feel more like men,” he says.
The nonprofit relies on a network of 32 volunteer dentists and oral surgeons who donate their time and offices. Ferlito knows the providers well and after an initial screening with each patient, he refers them to whichever dentist believes to be the best fit. One provider-partner is the dental hygiene program at Cabrillo College, where students see about 12 Dentistry4Vets patients per week.
They also have a dentistry clinic underway, thanks to a donation from Montage Health of nearly 1,000 square feet in the Montage clinic in Marina. “[Montage CEO] Steve Packer is making it feasible for us to open up an office in the next three months,” Ferlito says.
Once they’re up and running, they plan to offer both general practice and surgical services at least five days a week. And they’re always looking for more volunteers: “We have the patients, now we just need the labor,” Jansen says.