Pro Bono Dental Program Helps Washington-area Holocaust Survivors

About 150 Nazi victims in the Washington, D.C. area have received free dental care since 2011 through a partnership of three area organizations, Jewish Social Service Agency (JSSA) in Rockville, MD.; the Alpha Omega International Dental Fraternity’s public service arm, the Alpha Omega Foundation; and the Maimonides Dental Society of Greater Washington.

Iosif Fikhman, a Holocaust victim from the former Soviet Union, needed extensive dental work and was matched with Dr. Donald Meyer, a member of the umbrella committee coordinating free dental care to area survivors. “Mr. Fikhman needed a lower denture, but I explained that his bite was such from years and years of poor dentistry that we couldn’t restore him properly with just a lower denture unless we fixed the upper teeth,” explained Dr. Meyer. Mr. Fikhman became anxious when Dr. Meyer discussed the situation with him, and he didn’t want to return for treatment.

But he agreed to treatment after being reassured by Dr. Ben Williamowsky, co-chair of the dental program. “It was a good decision on [Mr. Fikhman’s] part, and his family is very happy that he did it and I’m happy to help him,” said Dr. Meyer.

“Dental health is a huge and very expensive challenge for Holocaust survivors and for agencies who are serving them,” said Ellen Blalock, JSSA Holocaust survivor program and volunteer coordinator. “Dental needs started way back in the lives of survivors. They had nutritional deficiencies and health deficiencies and were deprived of what would create a healthy foundation for the rest of their lives.”

Though JSSA receives about $600,000 in grants from the Claims Conference to care for Nazi victims, the agency has to look for additional resources to address the increasing need. Caseloads are growing due to expanded eligibility for Claims Conference-funded services and more survivors moving to the Washington area to be with their adult children. “All of the agencies with whom I have spoken are struggling to balance increasing survivor needs with grants and other donations,” Ms. Blalock said. “The cost of survivor care is increasing, and the funds available for care are not sufficient to cover the costs. The near poor aren’t eligible for emergency services grants.”

To address oral health needs, she turned to colleagues in the community to create a program that helps area Nazi victims receive crucial dental care – free.

Ms. Blalock contacted Dr. Williamowsky, a retired dentist and director of the Alpha Omega Foundation, and Dr. Morris Cohen, the past chairman of the dental program at the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington. “Our pro bono work with Hebrew Home for the Aged offered a perfect segue into this program,” said Dr. Williamowsky. In addition to Dr. Williamowsky, Dr. Cohen and Dr. Meyer, the dental program committee includes Dr. Samuel Blum, a past chairman of the Alpha Omega Foundation, and Dr. Michael Stern, the international editor for the Alpha Omega fraternity. The committee members reached out to dentists in their respective organizations, and they agreed to provide survivors with the care they need at no cost.

Many survivors are facing severe oral health challenges, which have grown more serious as they age. Because their Holocaust experiences can trigger traumatic memories, some survivors are wary of interacting with medical personnel, and may not seek medical attention as often as needed.

“Of course, many of us who are not Holocaust survivors feel anxiety walking into the dentist’s office,” said Ms. Blalock. “To have a physician or dentist show that he or she cares about the survivors, that they matter and have value, helps survivors feel at ease. Just to walk in and feel like they’re welcome is wonderful, even before any skilled treatment is started. It’s been an amazing relationship.”

JSSA’s free dental program for Holocaust survivors seeks to address both emergency dental problems and basic dental services for improved oral health. “The mouth is a window into the health of the whole body,”Dr. Williamowsky. “Patients need everything from periodontists for gum disease, endodontists for root canal therapy, oral surgeons, prosthodontists, and more.” Costs can reach $100,000 or more, putting this care out of reach without the participation of dentists in this program.

So how do survivors manage?

In this pilot program, the dental fee is waived and lab fees are donated, vastly reduced, or covered by JSSA with the help of grants from the Claims Conference. In order to be a JSSA client, Nazi victims must meet certain income and asset guideline requirements. Dental care is expensive and would be unattainable for many survivors without the participation of the dentists in the Alpha Omega Foundation and Maimonides Dental Society. “The dentists cover costs almost completely,” Dr. Williamowsky said. “It’s astounding the amount of care, cost-wise, that’s being given to the patient that they could not nearly come close to affording.”

“The survivor population is growing older and needs more assistance .  Even though we are losing survivors, we still have a large caseload who are increasingly more frail and ill.   In addition, younger survivors are being enrolled who experienced great deprivation, and who are now facing difficult oral health challenges,” said Ms. Blalock.

Though the participating organizations are predominantly Jewish, some of the dental volunteers are not. “It’s encouraging that all of the pro bono dentists – young and old – have embraced the program wholeheartedly,” said Dr. Williamowsky.

The connection between many dentists and patients “is very, very satisfying,” Dr. Williamowsky said. “There are a couple of individual reports from dentists who have ‘fallen in love’ with patients. And this has been reciprocal, too.” One survivor became very friendly with his dentist and his dentist’s wife, who is the office receptionist. After telling them about his Holocaust experiences, the survivor went on to speak at their child’s school, Dr. Williamowsky said.

Mr. Fikhman and his wife Bella spoke with great appreciation of Dr. Meyer, highlighting his care and skill. “What is special about this doctor is that he didn’t ask me what bothered me,” explained Mr. Fikhman. “He opened my mouth, saw what I have, said ‘You need this and this and this.’ The doctor worked with me more than two months because it was necessary. He is a very good man, a very touching man.”

“We were so happy, we gave some money to grow trees in Israel in [Dr. Meyer’s] honor,” said Mrs. Fikhman. “We wrote a review of his office on the computer and gave him five stars, the highest you can give.”

The dental program’s committee members and JSSA look forward to sharing their model with other agencies around the country in hopes of providing comprehensive dental care to all survivors in need. “We’ve got something in our community that is like a piece of gold to us,” Ms. Blalock said. “Who wouldn’t want that?”