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PACIFIC OCEAN – The patient lies on the reclining chair with dental instruments neatly lined on a tray beside them. Bright lights shine in their eyes as the dentist picks and prods at their teeth and gums. The instruments rattle as both the dentist and the patient try to stay still through the rolls and pitches as the ship sails through rough seas.
Amphibious assault carrier USS Tripoli’s (LHA 7) Health Services department, dental division, maintains dental health for more than 1,200 deployed Sailors and Marines.
“If you don’t have good teeth, it could mean you’re out of commission for the mission,” said Hospitalman Katherine Palacio, assigned to Tripoli’s dental division.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, poor dental health can lead to other issues, such as infections, heart disease and even cancer. Lt. Jennifer Kolin, Tripoli’s dental officer, said preventing these conditions is a vital aspect of mission readiness. “Making sure personnel are able to do their job is the most important part of my job,” said Kolin. “If they’re having any sort of dental issues and their mind isn’t where it needs to be, then it hurts our mission. My goal is to support everyone I can on Tripoli.”
Much like their landlocked civilian counterparts, Tripoli’s dental corpsmen specialize in oral health. Despite being on a warship instead of in a clinic, they are well-equipped to deal with standard dental examinations. They are also trained to perform special procedures, such as making crowns to restore a damaged or missing tooth. “We focus on your teeth, your mouth, and your jaw health,” said Palacio. “Good breath is also a bonus.”
Kolin and Palacio both agree the best part of working in dental division is interacting with the crew. “My favorite part of my job is meeting people and interacting with patients,” Palacio said. “When people come in with a toothache, I like to help make them feel better.”
“I love meeting everyone on the ship,” said Kolin. “Everyone has to come see me once a year, and I feel fortunate that’s the case. I love asking people about their day, and having them tell me about their job and about different parts of the ship.”
Many Sailors will face roaring jets without flinching or fight blazing fires without hesitation, yet still find themselves quaking in the dentist’s chair; an amusing contradiction, Palacio pointed out.
Whether they are alleviating people’s fear of the dentist, or filling cavities, Tripoli’s dental corpsman are prepared to use every instrument in their arsenal to fix happy smiles.
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