Army Reserve dentist provides free care to those in need

By Sean Kimmons | Army News Service | July 10, 2017

LAREDO, Texas — Maj. Jose Cangas had never been to Laredo. But when the U.S. Army Reserve dentist arrived here for a recent training mission, he felt like he was back in his hometown.

"It's a homecoming," Cangas said, taking a break inside a cramped mobile dental van where he had been working. "The people in my chair are like my parents, my aunts and uncles, my little cousins. I feel more at home here than I do where I live."

Born and raised in El Paso, a similar border city located in west Texas, the 37-year-old Soldier now resides and has his own practice in North Carolina. He traveled to Laredo to treat hundreds of people living in low-income border communities, as part of a two-week Innovative Readiness Training mission.

With the 7458th Medical Backfill Battalion, a U.S. Army Reserve unit at Fort Bragg, N.C., Cangas set up shop at the Larga Vista Community Center near Laredo during the event, which ended Saturday. The mission supported several of the area's "Colonias," or unincorporated towns lacking major infrastructures such as portable water, sewer systems, electricity, paved roads or storm drainage.

BORDER LIFE

Cangas recalled growing up in an impoverished neighborhood just outside of Fort Bliss in El Paso. While his community had municipal utilities and services, he said, his family still lived in an older home in an "ugly" part of the city.

His father, who worked as an electrician and in construction, did the best he could do to beautify the family home.

"I look back at it now and laugh that my friends would call us rich because our house was nice," he said. "But by no means were we rich. We were all getting our free school lunches at school and we were all coming to community centers like this one to get our (free) vaccinations."

Having that local touch made him a popular medical professional among patients during the mission, which had nearly 125 Reserve Soldiers perform free medical services at four community centers near Laredo.

"I've gotten a lot of hugs. Nobody has tried to kiss me yet, but mostly it's because they have gauze in their mouth because they just had a tooth extracted," he said, smiling.

Local residents were so appreciative for the care provided by Cangas and the other Soldiers, they even fed them. While Soldiers were supposed to eat MREs for lunch, they were instead offered home-cooked meals.

"We're having to turn away stuff because they're actually doing too much," Cangas said after seeing a patient. "They've just been a wonderful and welcoming community."

After all, the free medical care saved families hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. A single tooth extraction, for instance, can cost a few hundred dollars to perform, he said.

"That's the money we'd be making if we were a for-profit organization," Cangas said. "But for a lot of these families, even $100 is impossible. We have people coming in here asking us for toothbrushes and toothpaste because they don't have the money."

ARMY DENTIST

As a child, Cangas became fascinated with his dentist's lifestyle. His mother, who worked as a travel agent, often booked trips for the dentist, who to Cangas appeared to be making loads of money and had flexibility to travel.

"So I thought, I want to be like … my dentist who is a super cool guy who always has time to travel and has the money to do it," he said.

That seed he planted in his mind eventually grew as he headed to Texas Tech University after high school to pursue his dream as a civilian dentist. Then the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened and changed his initial plans.

"I was just part of that big wave of people who joined because we felt the need to serve," he said.

Cangas was able to remain in dental school, with the Army helping to pay for the majority of it. He then served active-duty for eight years before switching to the Army Reserve.

"It wasn't something I wanted to step away from completely," he said of his military service. "It's something I needed to do if I wanted to continue to progress my career."

As he participated in his second IRT mission, Cangas said the real-world training can be very fluid and different from his civilian office, where he works as a pediatric dentist.

"If you go to a dental office, you got an appointment schedule and you know that Mrs. Smith is coming in for a cleaning and Mr. Johnson is coming in to get a tooth extracted or filled," he said. "But here we don't know what our patients need until they sit down in this chair."

Patients in need of emergency dental care have forced him and others to be adaptive, an important skill to have, especially in deployed situations.

"You never know what's going to walk through the door and you have to be ready and prepared to do things you haven't done (before)," he said.

One of his patients had to have 15 of her remaining teeth removed due to infections that were causing her pain. Before the operation, Cangas advised the woman that the only option is dentures and that he'd be willing to extract her teeth to save her money so she can get them and have a functional mouth again. She agreed.

"At the end of the day, 15 teeth extracted is a big load off her back," he said, adding it likely saved her thousands of dollars. "She's one step closer now to having full dentures that she'll be able to smile and eat with.

"It's funny … she walked out of here with a toothless smile, but it was a smile because she was really happy."

Sgt. Adam Mosley, a dental assistant with the 7226th Medical Support Unit from South Carolina, worked alongside Cangas. A shipping manager for a T-shirt company on the civilian side, he appreciated the chance to see Cangas in action.

"You learn a lot on these missions," Mosley said. "This is real world, real emergencies."

With Cangas being able to talk with the Spanish-speaking patients, it also made it easier to give proper care. "It just goes a lot smoother and they get a lot more comfortable because he can speak Spanish," Mosley said. "Plus, I get to learn a little bit [of Spanish], too."

FOLLOW-UP CARE

After treatment, each patient's dental record was handed off to a local federally-funded clinic that plans to provide follow-up care for little or no cost. The goal is to give low-income residents access to continual care, according to Oscar Muñoz, director of Texas A&M University's Colonias program.

The Colonias program, along with Webb County where Laredo is located, requested the IRT training to take place in the region to assist some of its more than 60 Colonias.

"This is something we're building on for communities to have long-term sustainability," Muñoz said of the training mission. "We just don't want to get you started and leave you. Let's learn how we can connect and get medical service providers [involved]."

Besides health care, sustainable infrastructure was also addressed in the IRT mission, which had Reserve engineers do road improvements and civil affairs Soldiers conduct surveys in Colonias to help county officials apply for grants.

Issues with many Colonias started with "unscrupulous developers" taking advantage of low-income home buyers, Muñoz said. Often, he added, the promises of proper infrastructure were never carried out.

While some may think it would be easier if people just moved to the city for better services, Cangas said, it's not that simple for economically distressed families.

"It's their home, their land. So why would they leave?" Cangas asked. "It's all that they have, even though it's not what we would consider a livable condition."

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