Navy veteran Brian McKinley started losing his teeth in 2007 due to  chemotherapy treatments for Stage 4 melanoma. He lost one every six months or so, and eventually wound up without enough teeth to eat.

“I had to change my diet. I started losing weight,” he said. “I was not going out to meet people or talk to people because I was embarrassed about my teeth. I became more or less a shut-in.”

McKinley ate a lot of soup and cooked meat until it was so tender it would fall apart. He was very self-conscious about his teeth. He last took a picture with his wife, Patty, 20 years ago.

“It was a really nice picture. We were both smiling,” he said. “We both had really good-looking smiles.”

WesternU Dental Center patient Brian McKinley shows the last photo he took with his wife, Patty. (Jeff Malet, WesternU)

Western University of Health Sciences’ Dental Center has given McKinley a new smile and a new outlook on life. The Dental Center provided him free dental care as part of the Dental Lifeline Network’s “Will You See One Vet” program, where dentists across the country volunteered to provide free care to veterans.

“We owe our veterans a lot. They have devoted years of their life keeping us safe. Often they will spend most of their time away from their families and loved ones. We ask them to make sacrifices up to and including loss of life sometimes,” said WesternU College of Dental Medicine Dean Steven Friedrichsen, DDS. “Under the current system, the VA (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) really only provides dental care for those who have essentially 100 percent disability as a result of their service, and so I think there are a lot of veterans who have marginal dental care. This is one way we can give back in a very small way to contribute to their health and well-being.”

American Dental Association President Jeffrey M. Cole encouraged ADA members to participate in “Will You See One Vet.” Friedrichsen brought the idea to CDM Associate Dean for Patient Care and Clinical Education Brent Fung, DDS, and Dental Center Director of Patient Care Services Suzanne Adolphson, MSW, MHA, and they helped implement the program.

“We’re fortunate we do have that type of environment,” Friedrichsen said. “We have a lot of people who are engaged, whether it’s faculty, staff or students. Something like this had just an innate appeal. To be able to help somebody in that situation was very gratifying to everybody. We are happy to do it.”

McKinley joined the Navy immediately after graduating from high school at age 18 in 1973. He served aboard the U.S.S. Fanning, which supported troops in the evacuation of Vietnam in 1974. He was honorably discharged as a petty officer third class in 1977.

Brian McKinley served in the U.S. Navy from 1973 to 1977. Photo courtesy of Brian McKinley.

The College of Dental Medicine typically has three or four students on military scholarships in any given year, and the veterans’ program, was a good way to introduce them to the type of people they will be caring for when they graduate from dental school, Friedrichsen said.

McKinley was paired with CDM student Anna Abele. Friedrichsen’s goal is for McKinley to attend Abele’s commissioning dinner.

I am very happy with my student dentist, which is Anna Abele,” McKinley said. “She is caring and attentive to my needs and is doing a wonderful job on my mouth.”

Abele, a second lieutenant in the Army, will begin her active service immediately after graduating from WesternU. She will serve four years of active duty and four years as a reserve.

She bonded with McKinley because of their military connection, Abele said, but they also connected on a personal level because McKinley has a very open and genuine personality. He loves to share about his life and hobbies, and wanted to know more about her as well, she said.

“As a patient, he’s been very positive and able to give great feedback. It makes it really easy for me to treat him because it allows our appointments to flow very easily, and I know we’re both on the same page about the direction of his care,” Abele said. “He’s also a very warm, friendly person in general. He has shown me pictures of his family, told me about his background and life experiences, and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know him as an individual.”

McKinley told her he had some negative dental experiences in the past, including partial dentures that didn’t work for him, Abele said.

“Having him here at WesternU and being able to give him a while new and positive experience with dental care has been really special to be a part of,” she said.

College of Dental Medicine student Anna Abele examines Brian McKinley in the WesternU Dental Center. (Jeff Malet, WesternU)

His new dental care has resulted in a total transformation, she said.

“He comes in smiling and he looks very natural,” Abele said. “He shared that when he went home, all his friends and family said that his dentures look so natural. As a provider, it’s so special to hear that the people who are important in his life also see this and are just as excited about it as we are.”

A person’s smile is often the first impression they make on others. Not having teeth might negatively impact the way the world sees you and the way you see the world, Abele said.

“Whether it’s the loss of teeth, pain, or esthetic concerns, oral health has a huge impact on one’s confidence and their interpersonal relationships,” she said. “To be able to be part of improving that and restoring someone to dental health is a great honor and responsibility.”

McKinley read about potentially receiving free dental care in the VA newsletter. He contacted the VA and filled out an application. About a month later, WesternU contacted him.

“I thought I was going to have to go the rest of my life with no teeth. And I don’t know where I’d be,” McKinley said. “For one thing, I can smile again, and I won’t be embarrassed to talk to people. I won’t be isolated anymore. The WesternU Dental Center has been a godsend to me. I really do not know where I would be or how my health would be without them helping me.”

And now, 20 years later, he might finally be ready to take another photo with his wife.

WesternU Dental Center patient Brian McKinley admires his new dental work. (Jeff Malet, WesternU)