Champions of Oral Health: Toledo dental office serves veterans in need

Dr. Nithya Nagaraj, Dr. T. Ryan Phipps, Dr. J. Eric Hires, Dr. Lauren Czerniak, Dr. Eric Johanssen and Dr. Raymond Blackford

Dr. Nithya Nagaraj, Dr. T. Ryan Phipps, Dr. J. Eric Hires, Dr. Lauren Czerniak, Dr. Eric Johanssen and Dr. Raymond Blackford volunteered for Stars, Stripes & Smiles to help veterans in need of dental care.

A dental office in Toledo has been working to serve those who have served our country by providing free care to veterans.

Hires Dental Care has been hosting Stars, Stripes & Smiles annually since 2010, and has donated $155,000 in free dental care to 684 veterans through the events.

“There is a need in this country to improve and expand dental care for our veterans, because many of these men and women fall outside the VA’s strict criteria for coverage,” Dr. J. Eric Hires said. “We established this non-profit event in order to provide these deserving individuals with quality dental care and possibly some relief if they are having tooth pain. Even though they can receive free treatment during our event, that is only one day and not a solution for long-term oral health. That is why our country needs to greatly improve upon the care it provides to our veterans.”

At the event, vets are able to receive a free cleaning, filling or extraction.

“There are patients who served for several years overseas who did not plan a military career long enough to apply for the dental benefit. Unfortunately many of these same veterans have seen their overall health diminish and teeth become lesser priority,” Dr. T. Ryan Phipps said. “We’ve seen infections that I am certain have been painful for years and the patient finally has a chance to take care of it. Our veterans are not complainers, and to see an infection that I know has been that bad for that long reinforces why we need to help them.”

This year’s event took place May 13, and the office saw 119 veterans for $22,300 worth of care.

“It’s overwhelming the amount of ‘thank you’s’ and hugs we receive during Stars, Stripes & Smiles,” said Erica Emery, event director/marketing manager at Hires Dental Care. “But what validates the importance of this day to me is seeing veterans arrive as early as midnight for an event that begins at 8 a.m. Every year, one of our regular Stars, Stripes & Smiles patients arrives at midnight in his camper, where he sleeps until registration begins. This year, as we were setting up for the event, another gentleman arrived at 4:50 a.m. to get in line. More trickled in soon after. Because the event is only one day, patients want to ensure that they receive treatment, so getting their place in line is very important.”

The volunteers felt that talking to the veterans, hearing their stories and being able to thank them for their service is one of their favorite parts of the event.

“My friends in the military have made it clear that dental care is difficult to access through the VA unless certain criteria is met,” Phipps said. “The veterans who receive care on this day are extremely appreciative and have let our office know that they would not be able to afford the treatment without the event. We take so many of our freedoms and security as a nation for granted in the U.S. We owe it to all of our veterans to return the favor however possible.”

The group is very grateful to have the support of the community behind its efforts.

“As a non-profit, Stars, Stripes & Smiles runs solely on donations,” Emery said. “We are so fortunate to have many local businesses and individuals get behind this event each year. We received donations from 36 businesses and individuals that included monetary gifts, food, beverages, dental supplies, raffle prizes and more. As the vets wait to be seen, they are treated to free food, a DJ, raffle prizes, games and more. We also get support from Promedica, who provides free blood pressure screenings; The Dental Center of NW Ohio, which helps veterans with further dental treatment if needed; and OH Veteran Job Services, who discuss employment opportunities with veterans.”

Hires said the Toledo community has been very supportive of Hires Dental Care for over 40 years, which has allowed the practice to continue to grow. Because of this, he feels it’s important to give back to the community.

“Being able to give back and provide the local veteran community with free dentistry is very rewarding for all of us volunteers,” he said.

The dentists who participated in this event include Dr. J. Eric Hires, Dr. Nithya Nagaraj, Dr. T. Ryan Phipps, Dr. Lauren Czerniak, Dr. Eric Johanssen and Dr. Raymond Blackford. Their next Stars, Stripes & Smiles event is planned for May 12, 2017.

“Champions of Oral Health” is a feature in the “ODA Today” highlighting access to care initiatives in Ohio. Champions of Oral Health are people, programs and initiatives that go above and beyond to improve access to quality dental care to underserved populations.