GREENSBORO — During her residency at the Fayetteville Veterans Administration Hospital, Dr. Lisa Jo Adornetto discovered that not all veterans were qualified for dental care.
“I felt so bad for the veterans there because they put their lives on the line for the country,” she said.
She swore that one day she would help as many people as she could.
Now in Greensboro, with his own practice, Adornetto delivers on that promise.
She calls it Veterans Dental Day.
Since 2009, on the eve of Veterans Day, staff at the Adornetto office have been dedicated to cleanings, pulling teeth, fillings and other procedures for those who served. Adornetto is sometimes able to provide additional services to certain veterans beyond the free clinic day.
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World War II veterans obscured its door.
The same goes for Larry Campbell, a 75-year-old Vietnamese army pilot whose teeth had started to break at the gumline after taking a combination of drugs to treat other health conditions.
She continued to see Campbell, who was unable to eat for days and lived on extra strength Tylenol before finding her, free of charge. He also had a mouth full of abscesses, which could have killed him due to the risk of infection traveling elsewhere in his body, said Adornetto, who has practiced for more than 25 years.
“I wish I could choose them all,” Adornetto said of Campbell as a patient. “He really needed my help. Maybe it was a God thing because I couldn’t get it out of my head.
Campbell, who grew up in Greensboro, heard about Veterans’ Dental Day from his friend’s son-in-law, who overheard it mentioned on a morning news show as he was getting his kids ready for school.
He gave Campbell the number and the veteran was in Adornetto’s chair the same afternoon.
“The first thing they did was thank me for my service,” said the admittedly shy Campbell, who has always preferred not to draw attention to himself because of his teeth. “They didn’t put me down.”
Campbell’s journey through life up to this point had been complicated.
The country was still embroiled in the Vietnam War when he enlisted in the military in the early 1970s. Campbell remembers the dirty looks and comments that were common among servicemen in uniform.
After leaving the military, VA-prescribed drugs caused kidney problems and something almost unimaginable – his once-healthy teeth chipped at the gumline.
This left Campbell in constant pain and he felt embarrassed by his lack of teeth.
“I saw the letter from the VA advising him that he did not meet the requirements for VA dental care,” said Shearer Williams Bridges, a retired nurse and friend.
Bridges has located a few local efforts across the country that have helped people without dental insurance, including some for veterans. But they were limited in what they could do.
“In the meantime, our aging veterinarians, many of whom are homeless, suffer from poor physical health caused by rotting, missing or abscessed teeth,” Bridges said.
Bridges’ husband had met Campbell through an amateur radio group.
Campbell, who works as a school crossing guard, over time shared her story with the couple.
“He’s a good guy who had tough breaks,” Bridges said.
It was her son-in-law who saw the free exam advertised on a TV channel.
Said Bridges: “It was truly an answer to our prayers.”
Adornetto can sympathize with his patients.
Back in college, she had a bad habit of chewing on a pencil, which caused her pain and eventually required root canal surgery on her lower front teeth.
This experience would lead Adornetto to a career in dentistry.
“I said I wanted to help people like that,” said Adornetto, an Ohio State University graduate with a doctorate in dental medicine. She was then accepted into an advanced residency program at UNC-Chapel Hill, which included work at Fayetteville VA Hospital.
After working at another dental practice for her first five years out of college, Adornetto went into business for herself.
Sometimes on Veterans Dental Day there were as many as 100 appointments with between three and five dentists on site as well as office staff.
“I couldn’t do it myself,” Adornetto said.
Adornetto also has a network of oral specialists she can call who will remove the most problematic teeth for free.
“I think it would be great if on Veterans Day every office could do the same,” Adornetto said. “That would be my dream.”
At the clinic last year, Adornetto started with a full mouth X-ray for Campbell.
“We had the hardest time getting him to smile,” Adornetto recalled.
They removed the teeth that needed to come out immediately, then set up new appointments.
Campbell thinks he still has two teeth up and down. Office staff took dental impressions and helped him get dentures.
“Dr. (Minaxi) Patel was very demanding to make everything fit,” Campbell said. “I can eat pretty much anything I want.”
He says he also feels better physically. Dental problems are often linked to other health problems.
“I can’t say enough about what they’ve done for me,” said Campbell, who is now smiling quicker. “I couldn’t have paid the bill. This whole office is made up of angels.
Bridges, the friend who is a nurse, hopes that unless the Veterans Administration expands care to those who have served, other dentists might consider taking on a veteran a year who cannot pay .
“Just look at what it did for Larry,” Bridges said.
Contact Nancy McLaughlin at 336-373-7049 and follow @nmclaughlinNR on Twitter.