By Stacey Dresner
WEST HARTFORD – When Lester Kramer was 11 years old, he and his family were taken from their home in Hungary and put on a train that would take them to the Strasshof concentration camp.
When SS guards began beating his mother and aunt, Lester tried to intervene and was hit in the mouth with the butt of a rifle, shattering his front teeth.
For years he wore a partial plate of false teeth to replace those he had lost as a child.
“In the intervening years he had lost some more teeth so the partial he had was extremely worn and didn’t fit,” explained Dr. Robin Santiago, a dentist in West Hartford. “It kept falling out of his mouth because he was missing teeth that in the past had supported it. So he really wasn’t able to eat well and he lost weight.”
Recently both Lester Kramer, who was liberated from Belgen-Bersen in 1945, and his wife Georgina, a survivor of Mauthausen, received dental treatment from Santiago, who donates her services to survivors as part of the Alpha Omega-Henry Schein Cares Holocaust Survivors Oral Health Program.
Georgina received new fillings and a cleaning and Lester was fitted with a new partial plate.
“I felt like, this terrible thing happened to him; what 11-year-old should have to live under circumstances like that, to be exposed to such evil and hatred and horror?” Santiago said. “But then they come in and with this program we show them love and care and give them back something that was taken away from them.”
The partnership between Alpha Omega, a national dental fraternity, and Henry Schein, a worldwide distributor of dental and medical supplies, began three years ago after former Vice President Joe Biden made a call for public and private companies around the nation to come together to assist needy Holocaust survivors who were falling through the cracks.
Aviva Sufian, special envoy for Holocaust Survivor Services under the Obama administration took Biden’s words to heart and contacted Allie Neale, a college friend who worked for Henry Schein.
“Aviva had gone around the country and determined that dental costs are a tremendous burden for survivors who are living below the poverty level,” said Bernice Edelstein, program manager. “Aviva and Allie thought about starting a dental-type program and Allie brought the idea to the CEO of Henry Schein, and Henry Schein contacted Alpha Omega.”
A little more than two years later, the program is now in 19 North American cities.
The Alpha Omega-Henry Schein program is for Holocaust survivors who are financially challenged, without dental insurance and with no other means for paying for dental services.
In addition to financial need, patient participation is prioritized by three critical factors: the elimination of pain, restoration of function, and lack of dental coverage.
“We have treated over 600 survivors and it is all probono,” Edelstein said. “It is a wonderful program. It is a true safety net for survivors. …When they were young children and young teens, they obviously were not going to the dentist and didn’t have the proper nutrition, so they are losing their teeth. Your oral health affects your overall health. Poor oral health can lead to diabetes, heart disease, all different types of health issues.”
A year ago, Alpha Omega contacted Jewish Family Services of Greater Hartford and met with Joan Margolis, JFS director of operations and community programs, Erica Kapiloff, case manager for JFS’s Holocaust Survivors program, and a few local dentists with connections to Alpha Omega to discuss setting up the program in the Hartford area.
They stress that Holocaust survivors cannot just call and set up an appointment with the dentists in the program. Patients must go through Jewish Family Services, which determines if individuals are eligible for the program. JFS then refers patients to the dentists participating in the program.
As of now, three West Hartford dentists are providing their services through the program. Dr. Santiago, Dr. Ed Karl and Dr. Mark Haims.
Santiago said that when she was originally contacted by Alpha Omega seeking volunteers she was happy to participate.
For years she has worked with Give Back a Smile for battered women, Give Kids a Smile during Children’s Dental Health Month, and Mission of Mercy, which provides dental care to veterans.
“Wherever I see a need and feel like I can make a difference in someone else’s life, I do it,” she said. “I really like giving back to the society I live in because I feel I have had some wonderful opportunities in my life.”
One recent patient needed new dentures, she recalled.
“She has no bone left and there was no way to hold the lower denture in place,” she explained. “When they come in we do an exam and I decide if this a case I can treat. For instance, I don’t place implants, so I needed someone else who can do that work.”
And so, for this patient, Santiago needed the assistance of Dr. Ed Karl, a periodontist in West Hartford.
The implants, which were placed by Dr. Karl early in August, will take four months to heal. Then, attachments will be placed to fit under her new dentures, which will be refined by Dr. Santiago.
“These people deserve to have the opportunity to end their life with proper dental care,” Karl said. “If they are having a problem and we can do something to help them, why not?”
West Hartford dentist Dr. Mark Haims is familiar with the senior population, including Holocaust survivors, as a result of his work with the volunteer dental clinic at the Hebrew Home and Hospital.
So far he has treated three patients through the program.
“In the several that I have seen, one was having miserable problems with her dentures, another one also with diseased teeth also needing partial dentures, routine fillings – the kind of issues that most older people would have,” he said. “They’ll come in and have their chief complaint, and I will do a thorough exam and determine what their problems are and then bring them back to a point where they are comfortable and can function well.”
Haims said the patients have been very appreciative. “One said, ‘Dr. Haims, you have hands of gold,’” he laughed. “They are so lovely and engaging.”
He adds that working with this population is a way to give back.
“My family was very fortunate in that all of my grandparents immigrated way before the war. Everyone was here in the early 1900s so our family has been blessed that we haven’t really directly been affected by family members who had gone through the Holocaust,” he said. “It’s a very thoughtful program. I am very happy to be involved…I see this as part of my profession. It’s not just to make a living but also to make some small contribution.”
The three local dentists donate their services, and dental supplies and lab work are donated by other sources. Sometimes the dentists call local labs or suppliers for their probono assistance, but other times they contact Alpha Omega, which is able to find suppliers or labs to donate services and products.
Robin Santiago recently finished the dental work on Lester and Georgina Kramer. Lester received his new partial plates last week.
“I just saw him. When I called him last night he said he had a lovely dinner. He said they feel great, they look great,” Santiago said.
The Kramers were so appreciative of the doctor’s work that they presented her with a tablecloth from Hungary and brought in a platter of cookies for her office.
“She is a wonderful person,” Lester said. “We were treated like family members.”
CAP: Dr. Robin Santiago (center) is flanked by Georgina and Lester Kramer, who presented her staff – including practice administrators Cassie Alexander (left) and Meridith Hans-Schultz (right) – with a tray of cookies to thank them for their service.