Reporting for Army duty, CWRU student leaves legacy of Peru dental mission

Nathan Buckner, of Hunter, Utah, sits in the Case Western Reserve University dental clinic, turning pages of a photo book from a mission he took to Lamay, Peru, with 16 Case Western Reserve students and faculty. He’s a bit nostalgic as graduation approaches Sunday, May 20, and he closes this chapter on his life to start a career as an Army dentist.

Establishing the mission to Peru is a legacy he leaves dental students who want to use their skills to care for people who lack access to dental services—some in remote regions of this world.

But looking forward, his next step in life is to move his wife, Kellie, and their four small children (ages 7, 5, 3 and 1) to Fort Sill in Lawton, Okla., where he will report for duty in the U.S. Army on July 2 to fulfill a four-year obligation to repay his dental school tuition.

Besides caring for the dental needs of Army personnel, he also will learn how to survive bad weather in “tornado alley”—a type of storm he has not experienced living in Utah or Ohio.

Buckner will begin the profession he has wanted since his eighth-grade gifted and talented classes where had to shadow a professional for one hour a week for almost three months.

Sad that his original choice—his pediatrician—was not available, his mother drove a “disappointed” Buckner to the family dentist, Todd Bowman.

“That’s where a light bulb went on,” Buckner said.  “I always liked arts and crafts as a Cub Scout and wanted to work with people. I saw how my dentist was an artist in sculpting and recreating teeth.”

Beside his artistic talents with his dental patients, the dental faculty appreciated Buckner’s fluency in Spanish.

As part of his first and second-year dental education at Case Western Reserve, Buckner participated in the Healthy Smiles sealant program. This collaboration with the Cleveland schools gives children access to dental services and lessons on good oral health while giving eager dental students a chance to begin seeing patients.

It came to the attention of Healthy Smiles Director and Chair of the Department of Community Dentistry James Lalumandier that Buckner was communicating in Spanish with some school children during dental exams and sealants.

Lalumandier asked Buckner if he would like work on the El Salvador dental mission.

He jumped at the opportunity to use the Spanish he’d learned during two years as a Mormon missionary in El Salvador between his first and second years at Utah State University, where he earned his bachelor degree in engineering.

Returning to school in 2010 ready to plan the El Salvador trip, he learned that the university’s School of Medicine wanted the dental school to collaborate on their Peru mission. The medical students noticed people from Lamay needed dental care.

Buckner didn’t hesitate to dig in and start planning the mission with his classmate Ben Cope. The two dental students traveled to Lamay, getting permissions and scouting lodging for the August 2011 mission.

The trip was a success. Buckner and Cope also had so many second-year dental students who wanted to go but still did not have enough experience to treat patients. Those students will have their chance to participate later this year.

Buckner said the experience made him realize “how good we have things in the United States.”

“We take so much for granted, including the quality of our healthcare. Even relatively good dentistry in Peru may be of questionable quality compared to the American standard of care,” Buckner said.

This trip solidified Buckner’s understanding of the crucial role modern dentistry plays in our society.

“By continuously striving to improve myself as a dentist, I will have the skills necessary to provide excellent care for my patients. Most patients may not realize how good they have it, but I’ve seen what a lack of adequate dental care does to individuals and an entire community. I am motivated to aid my community by providing the best care I can offer,” he said.

Buckner won’t forget Lamay and hopes to stay connected in years to come.

These days, Buckner is saying goodbye to his patients he has treated in the past years at the dental school clinics in Cleveland.

Buckner looks to the future and gaining some advanced education in dental medicine in the Army where he eventually hopes to specialize in endodontics.

Leaving the university, he has mixed feelings of sadness and happiness with his accomplishments, but he looks forward to entering the Army, where he will reach his goal and fulfill his long-held dream of becoming a practicing dentist.