CARUTHERSVILLE, Mo. - Dental care was in high demand recently at the Operation Healthy Delta Innovative Readiness Training (IRT) exercise in southeastern Missouri. Known as the Bootheel, the region is one of the state's more medically underserved areas.
Operation Healthy Delta IRT, led by the Missouri Air National Guard's 131st Bomb Wing Medical Group, was sponsored by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower & Reserve Affairs and is co-sponsored by the Delta Regional Authority (DRA), a federal-state partnership chartered by Congress in 2000 to help create jobs, build communities and improve lives through strategic investments in economic development in 252 counties and parishes across eight states, including southeastern Missouri.
Air National Guard, Navy (active and Reserve), and active component Air Force members set up two field-condition medical facilities in the cities of Charleston and Caruthersville, from Sept. 13-21, to provide dental and ophthalmology support services on a first-come, first-served basis to residents of the local communities. The care was provided at no-direct cost to the residents.
At each site, the lines were longer for dental care than any of the other services.
"We are delivering quality dental care using deployable equipment and assets in underserved areas, such as the Bootheel," says Col. Scott Blum, commander of the New Jersey Air National Guard's Trenton-based 108th Medical Group and officer in charge of the exercise's dental mission. "Our dental teams appreciate the support of all in the community. We couldn't feel more welcome and proud to serve."
Dental wellness exams, x-rays, fillings, and extractions were provided to patients. If the care request exceeded the unit's capability, patients were referred to community providers for follow-on care.
For the first time, active duty dentists and dental technicians participated alongside their Air National Guard and Navy counterparts. Field training opportunities are very limited for active duty dental professionals and they rarely have the opportunity to apply their skills in underserved communities, such as those being supported by Operation Healthy Delta IRT.
"This partnership at Operation Healthy Delta IRT with the Air National Guard and Navy definitely prepares our dental teams to better support current and future deployments," said Col. James Kutner, a U.S. Air Force Dental Expeditionary Consultant. "Working daily ensuring our active duty Airmen are deployment ready does not truly exercise our deployed assets and skills utilizing field equipment. The training here is invaluable as many of the acute care concerns our dentists are seeing here at the Charleston and Caruthersville care sites are similar to the ones we see when deployed overseas."
Among the dentists seeing IRT patients was Dr. John Kersey, Jr., an active-duty Air Force dentist from Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, with a specialty in pediatric dentistry.
"I had the opportunity to practice many dental readiness skills in a short period of time," Kersey said. "It was also great to share my knowledge and mentor the junior members of our team."
"This was a truly talented team of junior and senior, women and men, enlisted and officers, Air National Guard and Air Force, active duty Navy and Reserves, all using their gifts, abilities and resources in beautiful harmony to enrich the lives of people in these communities," he added. "This was an amazing opportunity to give back to our nation and I hope to participate again in the future."
A new concept was introduced during Operation Healthy Delta IRT. Active-duty Air Force dental officers and residents practiced at the care sites. They came in from numerous Air Force bases across the United States, including: Keesler (Mississippi); JBSA-Lackland (Texas); Little Rock (Arkansas); Scott (Illinois) and Travis (California), Air Force Bases participated at the care sites.
"This mission is an excellent match for the dental residents," said Blum. "At the beginning of their Air Force careers, these residents get to do something that most military dentists would never get to do in their entire careers. In this area where there are so many people in need of dental care, they can remove twice as many teeth in a single day than their entire dental school training requirement. They experience field dentistry at a time when they are the most motivated and energized."
Active-duty participation in Innovative Readiness Training allows dentists, hygienists, and technicians to train utilizing field dental equipment and supplies while treating individuals with unmet dental needs. The joint training allows providers with mentorship opportunities and to learn and practice field techniques and procedures with Air National Guard and Navy Reserve counterparts.
According to Blum, many Guard and Reserve ancillary personnel do not work within the dental career fields in the civilian sector. On their drill weekend, Guard members and Reservists teams are primarily completing ancillary training as well as annual dental exams on Reserve component members; ensuring all members are deployment ready.
Time constraints and mission needs do not support providing routine preventive, restorative or extraction services to members who are not on active duty. Most Reserve component units only use disposable instruments for their dental exams due to equipment cost and maintenance of dental instrument sterilizers. This joint-training venture allowed active duty dental technicians to teach the Reserve and Guard members their methods of chair-side assistance for key dental operations experienced down-range.
Knowing the need might be great in these communities, dentists were able to assist a larger patient population due to the dental deployment kits they were provided. Multiple dental exam chairs were placed in a room to allow for the best workflow. Between the two locations, dentists saw an average of 150 patients per day, with tooth extractions being a primary service to those seeking care.
"Operation Healthy Delta IRT has truly enriched our lives with yet another opportunity to serve," said Senior Master Sgt. Pavan Polur, the senior enlisted advisor at the Caruthersville care site and a dental technician with the Alabama Air National Guard's Birmingham-based 117th Air Refueling Wing. "This training has allowed us to share our previous experiences in the delivery of patient care."
"The seasoned team members - active, Guard, and Reserves - have exchanged ideas with newer members on their continuum of development in delivering optimal patient care," Polur said. "A testament to this optimized care was evident in a note from a patient stating: ‘We will never forget your caring hearts, smiling faces, willingness to help others, upbeat spirits and kindness. We thank you for a JOB WELL DONE!'"
While this is the first time active-duty dental professionals have provided IRT support, Kutner said it was truly a positive partnership for all involved and looks forward to the future.
"Dentists are altruistic at heart and love placing smiles on patient's faces," Kutner said. "The joint training with Guard and Reserve personnel is a great partnership and we look forward to strengthening this bond while also forging stronger relationships with our communities and the American people. We're one team and citizens will leave our care happy and in better oral health while also knowing our nation's military members, their sons and daughters, healthcare is in great hands!"