'People who would never smile, now do'

Holocaust survivors school young dentists on ‘trauma-informed’ care in New Jersey

Since 2020, a free clinic at Rutgers School of Dental Medicine has treated 69 Holocaust survivors, many of whom are afflicted with dental diseases due to childhood malnourishment

Reporter at The Times of Israel

At Rutgers Dental School, Holocaust survivor Yelena Olshansky receives free treatment from professor of restorative dentistry Peter L. DeSciscio (Courtesy)
At Rutgers Dental School, Holocaust survivor Yelena Olshansky receives free treatment from professor of restorative dentistry Peter L. DeSciscio (Courtesy)

NEW YORK — When Holocaust survivors walk into the Rutgers School of Dental Medicine for care, some of them say it feels like spending time with their grandchildren.

In October 2020, Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, Rutgers School of Dental Medicine (RSDM) and Dr. Howard Drew partnered to open the Rutgers-based clinic for Holocaust survivors. Since then, 69 survivors have received free care that is Person-Centered, Trauma-Informed (PCTI).

“We see the survivors light up in the bright and cheery atmosphere of our state-of-the-art clinic,” said Drew, a professor of dental medicine at Rutgers.

The term PCTI was coined in 2015 by the US Department of Health and Human Services and defined by Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) through practice. Envisioned as a holistic approach to care, the six guiding principles of PCTI care are safety, trustworthiness and transparency, peer support, collaboration and mutuality, empowerment and choice, and cultural, historical and gender issues.

“This has been a little dream of ours and a project we all hold close to our heart,” said Drew, who was “blown away” upon learning that 30 percent of Holocaust survivors live below the poverty line, he told The Times of Israel.

Because most survivors did not receive sufficient nourishment growing up, many of them have lifelong dental diseases. Basic insurance and government plans do not cover the specialized dental procedures needed by most survivors, some of whom see up to four specialists during a visit to the Rutgers clinic, said Drew.

Clinic for Holocaust survivors at Rutgers School of Dental Medicine in New Jersey. (Courtesy)

“I realized the dental school could be an optimal place for survivors to get all of the kinds of therapies and treatments they needed,” said Drew, whose son Alexander — a private practice prosthodontist — has been involved in the ambitious project.

The son of two Polish-born survivors, Drew brought three decades of expertise in implantology and periodontics to building the clinic. In recent years, he was named one of New Jersey’s top dentists and he’s long been a favorite professor of pre- and post-doctoral students.

‘They would be treated as VIPs’

The road to the clinic began before the COVID pandemic, when JFNA provided grants to local Jewish federations to identify and address the pressing needs of Holocaust survivors. Three issues were identified, said Debbie Rosen, the program coordinator at The Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.

“Combating social isolation, dealing with emergency finances, and affordable dental care were what those engaged in caring for survivors told us was needed most,” said Rosen, the daughter of a survivor.

Dr. Howard Drew with a portrait of his parents. (John Emerson)

“We researched options for dental care but didn’t find the right match,” said Rosen. “We started to identify dentists who would agree to care for some survivors pro bono, but we recognized managing different providers would be challenging at best,” she told The Times of Israel.

The federation had cast a wide net to identify providers and connected with Drew, who shared his vision of a comprehensive program at Rutgers and volunteered to lead the project.

“The vision of Dr. Drew was a clinic where survivors could get quality care through Rutgers without having to worry about the cost and they would be treated as VIPs,” said Rosen.

Between launching in October 2020 and July 2023, the clinic has served 69 Holocaust survivors, including free transportation from the group Kavod Shef. Nearly all survivors come to the clinic with complex dental and medical needs that have not been adequately addressed, whether because of lack of funds, trauma, or other circumstances.

“When someone experiences a trauma, it doesn’t go away as they age, and it can impact how they age,” said Rosen.

At the clinic, basic procedures are usually handled by DMD candidates, said Drew. Everything is then checked by an attending faculty member, he added.

“Advanced therapy [is handled by] our postdoctoral residents, who are taking three to six years of advanced training and are always surrounded by specialists with whom they can consult,” he said.

“Most of our patients have many issues, so you really need a team effort,” said Drew. “The initiative is helping all the providers become better professionals and to become better people.”

Since 2015, JFNA, in partnership with the federal government, has provided grants to dozens of agencies for PCTI programming, benefitting some 62,000 Holocaust survivors, older adults with a history of trauma, and family caregivers.

Federal funds are allocated through the Holocaust Survivor Assistance Program, an $8.5 million program to meet growing costs associated with survivor care and other older adult services.

JFNA’s grant program was a catalyst for the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ to work to address the dental needs of survivors, said Shelley Rood Wernick, granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and Managing Director of the Center on Holocaust Survivor Care & Institute on Aging and Trauma at JFNA.

“Widespread trauma means we need a better approach to care, and with these grants, Jewish federations are revolutionizing aging services,” Rood Wernick told The Times of Israel.

‘People who would never smile’

Born in St. Petersburg on the eve of World War II, Victor Leyn fled the city with his mother and survived the war in refugee camps.

“Life was not easy,” said Leyn. “It was cold. No food. But my mother took care of me,” Leyn told The Times of Israel.

Like others who grew up during the war, Leyn’s dental health was permanently affected by years of undernourishment. For his whole life, proper dental care was out of reach for Leyn — until the creation of the Rutgers clinic for Holocaust survivors.

During the past two years, Leyn was outfitted with life-altering implants. After more than three dozen visits to the clinic, he is finally able to chew food and digest it properly.

Rosaly and Victor Leyn. (Courtesy)

Leyn is one of many survivors who heard of the clinic through Jewish Family Service of Central NJ or Jewish Family Service of Greater MetroWest NJ, both of which serve survivors. In Leyn’s case, an announcement at Jewish Family Service of MetroWest NJ’s “Chai Café” led him to the clinic, where his wife and brother-in-law are now receiving care alongside him.

At the heart of PCTI care, said Drew, “is treating people with transparency and making them feel safe. We make them feel that they are a part of their therapies and they are involved in everything they are choosing to do,” he said.

After being greeted at the Rutgers clinic, survivors are assigned a “navigator” to take them through the comprehensive oral exam, x-rays, and eventually create a comprehensive treatment plan with the patient’s input.

In Rosen’s assessment, an important outcome of the clinic has been “training the dental students in PCTI as it relates to Holocaust survivors,” she said.

Rutgers School of Dental Medicine. (Courtesy)

All dental students view a 45-minute online module about the Holocaust and trauma faced by survivors, including PCTI strategies to help survivors feel at ease. The module was developed by The BlueCard with funding from JFNA.

By all accounts, the Rutger dental clinic’s PCTI approach has been a tremendous hit with patients.

“The survivors love being surrounded by youthful people, and that is something our clinic has plenty of,” said Drew. “A lot of them say coming in feels like being with their grandchildren,” he added.

The result of making free dental care available to Holocaust survivors can be life-altering for patients, said Rosen.

“People who would never smile, now do. People who had a hard time eating, now can,” she said.

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