Story by SSgt Jacob Cessna on 09/18/2019WISE, Va. -- "The only reason I'm a dentist today is because of surfing."
Lt. Cmdr. Jay Ross cares about people. He exudes warmth, he comforts patients during operations, and he urges them to bring in friends and family who need care. Missions like the Innovative Readiness Training Appalachian Care 2019, held Aug. 16-29 in Wise, Virginia, are where he thrives.
Appalachian Care 2019, and other Innovative Readiness Training events like it, offer a unique solution to two separate problems: one is the military's need to give its medical personnel applicable training, to actually work on worst-case scenario issues. The other problem belongs to these high-need areas, where a significant portion of the population lacks both access to health care and education as to how to prevent these issues. The solution: allow the military to offer medical care to those high-need areas, giving its medical personnel ample opportunity to practice their skills. It's simple, cost-effective, and allows for a real difference to be made in American communities. People like Ross are drawn to these events because of this impact.
"I've done two IRTs. It's all I volunteer for now," said Ross. "I got into dentistry because I wanted to do humanitarian work. I went to the University of Southern California which had a huge humanitarian work outreach. Then I joined the Navy and I feel like everywhere I go reassures why I became a dentist."
This longing to reach out and help fellow humans sprang, surprisingly, from his passion for surfing. Ross developed an interest in surfing while in college. At that point in his life, he studied animal science, with plans to go to veterinarian school, and would surf in his free time. He took trips to Central America in order to find the best surfing locations. While on these trips, he saw firsthand the needs of impoverished people living there.
"As surfers, we travel around the world to find the best waves and most of the best waves are in third-world countries. I would go down there to steal their waves, and I felt like I wasn't doing anything but taking."
Ross found a way to change this after agreeing to go on a humanitarian outreach program with a cousin of his who happened to be a dentist. The cousin brought Ross to rural Oregon, where he and other dentists performed simple but vital procedures on first-generation immigrant farmers. Ross saw the good that could be done with basic dental procedures.
"I was watching all these dentists working on these people, who don't speak the same language, who don't have anything in common, but are coming to them in pain and they're their only option to get out of pain. I saw that and I was just blown away. I was like, Oh my gosh, I could travel around the world, surf, and give back. All I really need is a suitcase with a little air compressor and I can do dentistry.'"
Overnight, Ross changed his major. He transferred to the University of Southern California and promptly joined the Navy for financial aid. After his four years of school, he found himself with no student loans, no stress of running a practice, but instead with a full-time job and patients at the ready. Ross was able to hone his clinical skills and focus on becoming a leader and not merely a dentist. By his second year, he was the sole dental prover for a battalion of over 600 people. Having developed himself into a dental professional, he then opened his private practice in Ventura, California, next to the Naval Base Ventura County installation. Now he works as a Naval Reservist, volunteering for IRTs whenever the opportunity presents itself.
If Ross could change one thing about IRTs it would be by increasing them.
"I think for the servicemen and women, it's just a great opportunity. IRTs, in general, for the community it's just another way we can make America stronger because we're providing a medical service free of charge. And its good quality care. "
Talking to Ross, it becomes clear that his biggest priority is not merely the dental procedures done, but the education that comes with them. The lack of knowledge of basic dental care and to avoid certain food and drink is a large reason as to why communities are in such high need. For this reason, children are perhaps the biggest target of education for dental professionals here. Not only for the sake of their smiles but for the sake of their futures.
"Our goal, instead of focusing on adults, was focusing on kids because you start there and you can change their life. Kids have an advantage because they have two sets of teeth. And when I talked to the young patients, most of them don't even know they could join the military, that they could do something different with their life. To be able to share that with someone, that's what blows me away."