Where to begin talking about what Rory Dunn has been through since his head was blown open that day in Fallujah? His best friend, who bled out next to him? His traumatic brain injury that has altered his personality? His forehead held together by a plastic prosthetic?
It’s hard to know where to begin, so Dr. Theresa Cheng concerns herself with what she knows best as a dentist: his teeth.
In the nine years since his unarmored Humvee in Iraq was hit by explosives on his 22nd birthday, Dunn has been making a long, hard recovery. His mother, Cynthia Lefever, has been by his side the whole time — sleeping next to her then-comatose son at Walter Reed Army National Military Medical Center and later traveling the country to advocate for veteran care.
Inspired by a profile of mother and son in The Seattle Times in 2008, Cheng, whose practice is in Issaquah, began providing free dental care for veterans in need and has signed on dozens of other professionals to do the same.
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Cheng has three sons, now in their early 20s, and she remembers thinking what it must have been like for Dunn’s mother to get that phone call and to drop everything to go to her son in a hospital thousands of miles away.
“I was thinking how when something like this happens in your life, you just put everything else on hold,”
In the upheaval, dental care was sure to fall by the wayside — and
she could do something about that.
Cheng originally planned to offer care to the wives of returning soldiers, thinking the vets got dental care through their veterans’ benefits. But she learned that the rules were more complicated, and for the most part, only vets who are considered completely disabled qualify for the dental program.
Cheng speaks in a calmly forceful voice with a slight accent hinting at her childhood in Malaysia. Colleagues gush about how nice she is — Cheng gets things done because she’s so hard to say no to.
Her periodontics practice had long ago set aside the day before Thanksgiving for community service, volunteering for organizations like Habitat for Humanity and Eastside Baby Corner. After reading about Dunn and getting in touch with the family, Cheng decided to provide free care for vets.
It was early November 2008, and she had a month to organize it all. She had no experience dealing with the military bureaucracy, so it was a steep learning curve figuring out how to find and verify vets.
“My staff thought I was kind of crazy at first, but I pumped them up about it,” she said.
From Lefever, she also learned to be sensitive to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The dental chair is hardly comfortable for anyone, but sitting in the chair with his back to the door was especially difficult for Dunn.
“For Rory and a lot of vets, when they go into a restaurant, they have to have their back to the wall and face the door. They’re hypervigilant,” said Lefever. “It was very difficult for Rory to go to that first dental appointment.”
Cheng trained her staff to speak in calm, soothing voices and warn patients before anything sudden, like a turning on a loud drill or lowering the chair.
A former board member of the Seattle-King County Dental Foundation, Cheng has leveraged her contacts from more than 20 years. She’s signed up 35 to 40 other dentists, to whom she sends vets with more advanced needs like dentures or crowns. All do the work for free.
“I hold her in such high regard,” said Dr. Warren Libman, who is Cheng’s own dentist and outfitted a vet with dentures.
Surprisingly, it’s been difficult to find veterans.
The first year, Cheng put up fliers at the VA hospital. The second year, she was told not to, because hers wasn’t a formally endorsed program.
“After the second year, my staff was ready to give up,” Cheng said. But she redoubled her efforts, working with social workers at the VA who connected her with patients. She also reached out to other veterans groups in Washington and online.
Cheng sold her practice last year and now works two days a week. The rest of her time is filled with organizing the free care: contacting dentists, reaching out to veterans’ support groups, corresponding with past patients.
Now in its sixth year, her program has helped hundreds. Cheng has found that veterans taking PTSD medication, which can cause dry mouth, struggle more with cavities.
Her patients have ranged from twenty-something men who served in Iraq to an 87-year-old World War II vet, who took the bus to Issaquah from Seattle. Her staff was dispatched to pick him up at the bus stop. (He returned on his own sometime later, bearing a plant to say thanks.) Local businesses donate food and goodies for the veterans to take home.
It’s more than just a teeth cleaning.
“They were joking and laughing — you felt comfortable in there. You didn’t feel like, ‘We’re doing this for you.’ It’s like one big happy family,” said Ian Martin, a Vietnam veteran who went to the dental day last year.
For Martin, the experience was a marked contrast to how vets, especially from his era, often were treated.
“Coming back from Vietnam, we weren’t greeted real well. To the point where most of my friends, and myself included, we threw away our uniforms, threw away our medals and just tried to blend in.”
Cheng also listens to her patients.
One Vietnam vet showed her his diary, confiding to her that he has a recurring nightmare about the first person he killed.
For most of the younger vets, talking is harder. “You can tell it’s too raw and too new,” she said.
What Rory Dunn remembers about walking into Cheng’s office for the first time was how small it was. And the cookies in the waiting room, which seemed strange in a dentist’s office.
Her office felt inviting compared to the Byzantine bureaucracy of the VA hospital, where Dunn grew frustrated with the long waits and the strict rules.
“Initially that first year, every visit to the VA was just a dramatic meltdown,” said his mother.
He’s better now. He can drive to appointments at the VA by himself; his eyesight and hearing have been restored by a corneal transplant and hearing aids.
Although Dunn qualifies for dental care with the VA, he prefers to come to Cheng for his checkups. Her office has “adopted” him as a regular patient.
Cheng, for her part, doesn’t have much taste for bureaucracy and paperwork either. Although people have told her she should create a 501(c) nonprofit, she prefers not to deal with the hassles of running an organization.
“I’m big on keeping overhead down,” she said. “This can be something that is just community helping community.”
And that’s where she sees the power of the Internet.
Last year, Garth Dalson, an Iraq war veteran from Michigan, read about her work online and inquired about free dental care. She happened to notice a speaker from his hometown at a dental conference last year and decided to just ask.
Dr. Betsy Bakeman agreed to take on the new patient, putting new crowns on eight of Dalson’s front teeth. That normally would have cost $1,700 per tooth; Dalson only had to pay a discounted $250 materials fee per tooth.
Cheng still hasn’t met Dalson, but they’ve exchanged many emails where he’s thanked her profusely. Once too embarrassed to smile in his photos, now he beams. “My teeth look better than someone’s in the movies now,” Dalson said in an email.
Cheng thinks there must be some way to expand her program online. It doesn’t have to be about her personal connections in Washington anymore. An app, perhaps, like the dating one her niece was showing her, that could match vets with dentists willing to meet their specific needs.
Meanwhile, she’s happy to get the word out about the vet in Michigan, but not for her own gain.
“Maybe I can use that to put pressure on the Michigan Dental Association so that they can do more,” she joked. “Some Washington person had to come in and kick your butt.”
Sarah Zhang: firstname.lastname@example.org. On twitter @sarahzhang