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New Scotland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, August 4, 2011
A family affair
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
VOORHEESVILLE Dr. Steven Lysenko handed a mirror to a woman who sat before him in a dental chair.
“She cried when she saw herself. She felt like she hadn’t wanted to smile in so long,” said Lysenko this week.
A long-time Voorheesville dentist, Lysenko had never seen this patient before yet she hugged him. The dental chair in which she sat was one of 70 set up in a tent on the fairgrounds in Wise, Va. in the Appalachian Mountain region of southwest Virginia.
“Music was blaring, people were talking,” he said, describing the carnival-like atmosphere.
Lysenko, his wife, Laurie, and their two daughters were part of an army of volunteers working long hours for three days, from July 22 to 24, to provide medical care for people who needed it but couldn’t afford it. The services which, in addition to dentistry, included visual, audiological, and general medical care were free.
Lysenko got interested in the project from his older daughter, Jennifer, a third-year dental student at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry.
“She did this with some of her classmates last summer and found it very rewarding,” he said.
Both the Lysenko girls are going to be dentists. “I guess I didn’t complain enough about my work,” quipped Dr. Lysenko. He hastened to add, “I love my practice, staff, and patients.”
Lysenko, when he was his daughters’ age, hadn’t planned to be a dentist. He grew up in New Jersey and majored in biology at Alleghany College, then went on to Chapel Hill with the idea of earning a master’s degree to become a professor. Halfway through, on the advice of a friend, he took the Dental Admission Test and did well. After graduating from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in 1983, he started practicing in Voorheesville.
“We’ve been very happy here,” he said. His wife has been the school psychologist at Voorheesville for 28 years.
Jennifer graduated from Voorheesville in 2005 and Kristen in 2008. Both girls went to Cornell, where Kristen will start her senior year in the fall.
Her parents took her out to dinner this week to celebrate her good scores, like her father’s, on the DATs.
All four of them piled into the family’s car, packed with as much dental equipment as could fit, for the 14-hour ride to Virginia.
RAM and MOM
The three-day event was run by Remote Area Medical, known as RAM, in conjunction with the Virginia Dental Association. The association’s website www.vadental.org says that one in five Virginians live in an underserved area typically poor, rural communities. The working poor, the elderly, the disabled, or the uninsured “are often left without dental care to face extreme pain, discomfort, and embarrassment,” the association says.
Consequently, the Virginia Dental Health Foundation launched the Mission of Mercy, known as MOM, where patients like those at the three-day clinic the Lysenkos were part of, are treated on a first-come, first-served basis.
The Lysenkos met RAM’s founder, Stan Brock, who was on hand for the Virginia event.
“He’s an interesting character,” said Lysenko, who remembered Brock from his youth when he would watch Wild Kingdom on TV. “While Marlin Perkins was talking about the alligators or whatever, Stan Brock was the one who would jump off the horse and wrestle with the alligator or the anaconda,” recalled Lysenko.
Brock is in his mid-seventies now, said Lysenko, adding, “He’s in great shape.”
Brock’s father was a British civil servant who was posted to the British colony of Guyana in South America. Stan Brock worked as a cowboy on the Dadanawa Ranch in Guyana in the 1950s.
“A half century ago,” he writes in a “letter from the founder” on his RAM website www.ramusa.org “I was living in a part of the upper Amazon basin where health care was a 28-day march away on foot. I survived malaria, dengue fever, numerous wild animal attacks and various encounters with Longhorns and mustangs without the help of a doctor. Others were not so lucky and I buried a number of them.
“It occurred to me that designing an all-volunteer health and veterinary care program for such desolate places might make life easier for a whole lot of people,” writes Brock.
A whole lot of people came to the July clinic in Wise. “We saw 1,200 people the first day,” said Lysenko. “They came from miles around. Last year, people came from 12 different states. They came from as far as Florida and Texas. They traveled, some of them, for days to get there. They would camp in cars or pitch tents.”
Lysenko himself tended to 12 to 15 patients a day. He and his family woke up in their hotel at 4:30 a.m. each of the three days to be at the fairgrounds by 5:30. They worked each day for 12 hours, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
About 1,700 volunteers helped by doing everything from serving meals and caring for doctors’ children to taking care of paperwork. Laurie Lysenko was one of the volunteers who did administrative work.
“There was no technical equipment and no staff; it was very primitive,” said Lysenko. “I had what I could fit in my car.” This included filling materials, hand tools, and a curing light to harden fillings.
“We saw all kinds of people,” he said. Lysenko described a range from a pregnant 17-year-old with her upper front teeth missing to elderly people who had “broken-down teeth.”
“Some people wanted to improve their teeth so they’d have a better chance of getting a job,” he said.
Lysenko also said, “People were extremely grateful. They couldn’t thank you enough.”
While Jennifer Lysenko worked on rotations with her dental-school classmates, performing surgery, triage, and sterilization, Kristen spent the three days as her father’s chair-side assistant.
“It was an eye-opener for her,” said Dr. Lysenko. “I could explain a lot to her.”
At the end of the grueling three days, Lysenko said, he was not tired. “No, every one was energized,” he said. “We got much more out of it than the patients.”