Foundation For Success

Air Force dentist plays vital role in remote Afghanistan

by Airman 1st Class Tom Brading, Joint Base Charleston Public Affairs

In a remote valley of war-torn Afghanistan, a Joint Base Charleston Airman is playing a vital role of enhancing the country’s practice of dentistry.

Maj. Courtney Schapira, from the 628th Medical Group at Joint Base Charleston, is currently assigned to the medical embedded training team at Forward Operating Base Lightning as the chief dental advisor at Paktia Regional Military Hospital in Gardez, Afghanistan.

“Our team is made up of 21 medical advisers from different NATO countries,” Schapira said. “We each have our own areas of expertise such as internal medicine, nursing, pharmacy, etc.”

Schapira deployed in November and is the first and only dental adviser assigned there.

“The Afghan dentists that I work with are excited to have a U.S. dental advisor and are eager to learn from me,” Schapira said. “They are asking questions and taking the initiative to do things on their own.”

Paktia Regional Military is an Afghan National Army hospital that only treats ANA, Afghan police and civilians with combat-related injuries.

The standard of dental care in Afghanistan is much different than in the United States. The clinic is not current with modern preventive dentistry.

Schapira said the dentists are skilled and adequate in their profession. However, the techniques, materials and thought processes behind their treatments are outdated.

“The dentists here used to rarely make patients numb prior to treatment,” Schapira said. “This is both painful for the patients and can turn what may be a single appointment in the U.S. into two or three appointments here, simply because the patients can only tolerate so much pain. Since my arrival, they now numb patients prior to any surgical procedure.”

During her first few weeks in Afghanistan, Schapira felt overwhelmed by the challenges facing her. Her efforts were divided in multiple directions. Supplies, non-working equipment, outdated techniques, infection control and patient administration all needed her attention.

“I realized I couldn’t improve everything at once,” Schapira said. “So, I set goals for myself and for the clinic. After most of the equipment was modernized, I turned my focus to the supply inventory.”

The 6-by-10 supply closet was full of unlabeled boxes filled with assorted dental supplies. The closet was overflowing with supplies and made it difficult for anybody to even walk in.

“The Afghanis lack a tracking system to monitor expiration dates or maintain inventories,” Schapira said. “The disorganization made it very difficult to find any materials they actually have.”

Most of the supplies on-hand were donated by various hospitals before Schapira arrived. However, because the Afghanis never had a dental adviser in the past, the staff was never taught how to stock and inventory the materials properly. Once Schapira organizes the supplies, she can more accurately decipher what the clinic’s real capabilities and areas of need are.

“Organization has been our top priority,” she said. “It has created a foundation for the clinic to grow. Now that everything is in order, training will become our top priority.

“With most of the equipment working properly now and the supply closet organized, I can start working more on infection control procedures, new dental techniques and patient administration.

“I’ve set the Afghan dental clinic up for success,” Schapira said. “I’m getting the clinic to reach its fullest potential. I have complete confidence in their capabilities.”