Treating dental pain in the war zone | January 2, 2009 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

Living - January 2, 2009

Treating dental pain in the war zone

Americans, coalition forces end up in the Danville native's orthodontist chair

by Staff Sgt. Vincent Borden

Lt. Col. John Walton, the lone orthodontist for the dental care of the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing, works in an office at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia that could serve as the classic example of irony.

The clinic, which is the size of a small bedroom, serves as the sole point of dental care available to airmen and coalition forces in the wing - some 3,000 personnel with more than 100,000 teeth of varying condition. Walton has but one dental assistant, one reclining dental chair and one policy: that anyone suffering dental pain can walk in and be treated immediately.

Despite a range of dental problems, no one has gone untreated.

"We treat a lot of different things here, but what we see often falls into three main categories: broken bones and broken teeth, pulp problems and temporomandibular joint conditions," said Walton, 386th Medical Group orthodontist.

The procedures that must be performed in response to these problems - such as root canals and filling replacements - range depending on the severity of the infection or injury to the mouth. Walton may have to replace a filling and pin a tooth together one day and suture someone's lip together the next.

"We stay busy here," said Walton, who attended San Ramon Valley High School. "I've always heard historically that the dentists stay pretty busy on deployments. There's always a steady stream of dental problems that happens here."

Things are both busy and different for Tech. Sgt. Jason Staggers, a 386th MDG dental technician who calls Berkeley home. He was mostly used to cleaning teeth at his clinic at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

He said the range of procedures he sees in his new assignment keeps things interesting, and it gives his work a different feeling than working back in the U.S.

"Back home you get into a routine, a sort of 9-to-5 type of thing," said Staggers. "I didn't realize how important dental was until I came out here. Getting people out of tooth pain and getting them back to their jobs is very important."

Walton and Staggers understand that importance, and have adjusted their range of care accordingly. They exclude routine dental work, such as teeth cleaning, from the services they offer. The clinic also refrains from performing major oral surgery operations, such as wisdom tooth removal and other tooth extraction procedures. In cases where that level of care is needed, Walton will refer the patient to a nearby dental facility at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, which has the tools and personnel to handle the work.

Walton said he was impressed by the capabilities of Camp Arifjan. He's had to refer a few patients there for surgery and advanced infections, and said he was able to do so in confidence and has not been disappointed.

The dental clinics at Camp Arifjan allow Walton to concentrate on getting people the help they need quickly, instead of him having to devote hours to one patient for oral surgery.

Because of this, Staggers said the clinic is able to treat a lot of non-traditional patients as well.

"With it being a walk-in clinic, we see a lot of transients flying on their way back to Landstuhl (Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, operated by the U.S. Army) or to other locations," Staggers said. "We also see a few Army and Navy, as well as Koreans and Australian military."

The ability to extend his services internationally and non-traditionally to other services and coalition forces that need the care is especially satisfying to Walton, who considers himself a nontraditional orthodontist.

After graduating from dental school, Walton participated in a few different specialized Air Force training programs, including maxillofacial prosthetics and prosthodontics. His path through the dental profession drew him away from general dentistry, which he hadn't performed in 10 years.

After being notified of his deployment, Walton said he relied on the Air Force Dental Corp in his attempt to familiarize himself with general dentistry procedures.

"It all came back to me," said Walton, a father of three who takes his children's dental care as seriously as his profession. "That was nice to see, that I could bring those skills back to the forefront that I hadn't practiced in a while. It's made me feel really good to be here, because I know the work we're doing is important and it shows every day.

"I know that if we weren't here, there would definitely be something of a vacuum or a hole that's not being filled," he continued. "To know that you can come over here and step into a job like this and make your own little impact for your country just feels good. And I know (Sergeant Staggers) and I will go back home proud of the work we were able to accomplish."

Staff Sgt. Vincent Borden is with the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs office.