June 21, 2024
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Rutgers School of Dental Medicine Provides Free Care to Holocaust Survivors

Dr. Howard Drew, the son of Polish Holocaust survivors, knows firsthand the suffering they experienced as children at the hands of the Nazis, including a lack of food and medical care.

While there was nothing he could do about their past suffering, Drew knew he could help ease what had been identified as one of the biggest issues they now face—the critical need for dental care while honoring the legacy of his parents.

Drew, the vice chair of the department of periodontics at the Rutgers School of Dental Medicine (RSDM), donated $100,000 with his wife, Ina, to help the school establish a program to provide free dental care to Holocaust survivors in collaboration with the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest.

After inquiries from other dentists, Drew also gave his blessing for care to be provided to survivors outside the federation’s catchment area, drawing patients from as far away as Long Island to the Newark school.

“We let it be known that if the $100,000 was used up we would add to it,” said Drew, who is also director of implantology and a clinical professor at the school. “The happiest thing that could happen for my wife and me is that our initial gift be used up quickly so we could have the opportunity to add to it.”

His own parents, who met in a displaced-persons camp after World War II, had been sent to a series of concentration camps, including Auschwitz, before they were liberated. His mother, Esther, is still alive at age 95.

The Short Hills resident, retired from private practice in Westfield and Verona, told The Jewish Link he has been especially gratified by how warmly the school has embraced the program.

“We treat them like VIPs,” said RSDM chief operating officer Andrea West, noting the school has set up a dedicated phone number and assigned a patient navigator to greet survivors and escort them through every step of the process.

Additionally, the school has acquired computer software to provide translation for survivors who do not speak English. The school also has staff who can communicate with deaf patients through sign language. Students and core staff have been given trauma training by representatives of the federation and the Jewish Family Service of Central New Jersey.

In a joint phone interview with The Jewish Link and school clinical dean Dr. Michael Conte, West said the school had been approached in late 2019 by several of its faculty, informing her the MetroWest federation had inquired about providing oral care to survivors after its survey identified it as a major problem.

Unfortunately, because RSDM is a state entity, it was legally prevented from using its funds to provide free care. “We loved the idea,“ West said. We clearly wanted to provide this pro bono.”

Grants were being investigated, but following consultation with federation community program coordinator Deborah Rosen and Drew’s generous offer, only one word came to West’s mind: “magic.”

In the fall of 2019, the federation had put out a call to local dental care providers inquiring whether they would be willing to provide free care to survivors, focusing on the special needs of these elderly people who often have significant issues with their teeth and gums because of the lack of care in their early lives, said Rosen.

She said the federation received two critical support grants from the Jewish Federations of North America to meet the needs of Holocaust survivors, and another such grant to meet the needs of survivors and older adults with a history of trauma. Its leadership council identified the needs of this community-pinpointed dental care, but the grants were insufficient to cover that necessity.

Federation is also collaborating with the KAVOD SHEF Initiative in partnership with Seed the Dream Foundation and KAVOD Survivors Fund, which provides secondary funding to communities throughout the United States to cover emergency transportation services to survivors for medical and dental care.

Rosen said its transportation funds are available to those living throughout the MetroWest area and suggested those outside check with their local Jewish family service to see if KAVOD funds are available if they cannot get to Newark on their own.

“I make it a point to meet every one of the patients,” said Conte. “We run a huge modern dental clinic, but we want it to seem like a private practice. That is why we put a patient advocate or navigator to track the process through all our specialties. We want to make the process patient-friendly and personalize the experience.”

Students, some of whom are in a post-graduate program for a dental specialty, are supervised by faculty members and administrators as survivors are guided through the school and steered into the proper specialty.

“This is not ‘one and done’,” said West. “After an assessment of the mouth, a treatment plan is established no matter how long it will take. That is the goal of the program and Dr. Drew: that if you need a filling, you get a filling.”

Dental students and staff have also benefitted from the training provided, said West, who found the experience of learning how current distress can trigger past traumatic incidents to be especially interesting. “You see the world a little differently after the training,” she said, noting she was so impressed that she’d like to see the training expanded to those in other parts of the school.

Apart from the deeper understanding gained by students and staff on how to deal with survivors, many have developed a close bond with patients.

Conte said recently after one survivor missed her appointment and after her student practitioner failed in multiple attempts to reach her, the concerned student came to him. Conte called the federation, which was able to finally reach her, learning she had simply forgotten.

Among the survivors who have benefitted from the program is a Sussex County couple, Anatoly and Larisa Rabinovitch, who escaped with their families from their native Ukraine to Kazakhstan in 1941 just before the German occupation.

“It was very difficult to get there and a lot of hardship to live there for more than four years because of poor living conditions,“ said Larisa. “There was a shortage of everything, especially food and medical care.”

Anatoly, 84, is having extensive work done, including implants, while Larisa, 80, is getting dentures because the bone loss in her jaw makes implants impossible. The couple was referred by the Jewish Family Service of MetroWest.

“It’s so important to have good teeth,” said Larisa. “If you can’t chew right, you can’t eat food properly. The staff showed such patience and kindness. You can never have any private doctor who would pay so much attention.”

For information or appointments, call the Rutgers School of Dental Medicine patient navigator at (973) 972-5304. For information about transportation or services for Holocaust survivors, contact your local Jewish family service.

By Debra Rubin


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