One Man, Two Battles: Vietnam and Dental Health

As a dentist, ADA first brings to mind American Dental Association, but American Disabilities Act is yet another agency for this acronym. It’s responsible for handicapped parking places, wheelchair ramps and many implemented standards to assist handicapped people in living life without having to face more barriers than their handicap already has given them.

Recently, a wheelchair-bound patient entered my office, and based upon the ADA, he had ample room to maneuver his wheelchair in our treatment room, perform a transfer procedure into our dental chair and receive his normal dental cleaning and exam. Our patient history revealed no significant medical findings, no allergies, but did not reveal the most significant aspect of this man’s life. This came later in conversation during a dental consult.

John Higginbotham, at age 19, was drafted into the Vietnam War in October 1968. He was instructed in military procedure, informed of Viet Cong, the North Vietnamese Army and handed an M-16 automatic rifle. By comparison, my daughter recently headed to college at about the same age and I’m worried about whether she will have the insight to wash her cloths and eat properly.

Base Helicopters

John Higginbotham, an Army soldier, was stationed in Pleiku (“playcoo”) Vietnam located in the Central Highlands, a cold mountainous region near the Ho Chi Minh Trail (a supply line between north and south Vietnam). Plieku was the location for Camp Holloway, a helicopter base that flew search and destroy missions and provided air support for ground troops. John’s job was to protect this helicopter base against invading enemy patrols. His bravery was displayed volunteering for dangerous nighttime “roving missions”, that entailed engaging the enemy when radar intercepts of enemy activity were reported. Faced with ambushes, booby traps such as landmines and other explosive devises, John and other infantry soldiers headed out to engage the Vietcong on February 19, 1969, when suddenly John’s body was launched into the air by the explosion of a mortar round ten feet away and a large piece of shrapnel that entered into his back. The damage was instant at the lower part of his spine causing broken vertebrae and loss of the use of his legs. The same helicopters he served to protect now provided the rescue mission for him to be airlifted to the closest hospital for immediate surgery. After 16 months of treatment, despite several medical doctor’s opinions that he would never walk again, was the astounding image of John walking out of Martin Army Hospital on June 26, 1970 with two canes, all thanks to the “magical” skills of his neurosurgeon.

Regaining his life and the use of his legs, John ultimately found a job as a Nuclear Plant Mechanic at Georgia Power in 1976 that lasted him for thirty years until June 2004 when he was forced to go on long-term disability and once again say goodbye to the use of his legs.

John has won many battles, and beat the odds when they were against him. John, however, had another ongoing battle between him and his teeth. Exposed to Agent Orange (a herbicide), especially while crawling on his belly in the jungle, John along with many other Vietnam vets, have experienced unusual dental problems including loss of teeth.

John entered into our dental office displaying tremendous courage because of psychological obstacles created by numerous bad dental experiences in the past. Entitled to the benefits of the Veterans Administration (or “VA”), which provides patient care and federal benefits to veterans, there was no reason John should not have gotten his dental problems taken care of over the past thirty years. His missing teeth, poor chewing and general discomfort instilled his desire for better teeth.

A comprehensive exam created the dental goal of several bridges and coordinated partial dentures to replace his missing teeth. This plan would eliminate poor chewing and alleviate his pain. Through the efforts of dentist and staff working diligently with the VA, we ultimately received clearance for John to enact his treatment plan. John is a man without use of his legs, confined to the total use of a wheelchair, often experiences shooting pains down into his legs and lives with the memories of war. Despite these adversities, John has a great outlook on life, and has recently found great happiness with the “new mouth that I’ve always dreamed of”. His dental health care was pain-free, which was a primary objective for John. His dental outcome achieved all his wishes of having his missing teeth replaced. He was very pleased he finally had overcome the huge hurdle of receiving dental care that he had battled for decades. His dental care restored not only his teeth, but also his confidence in himself. I salute John as an outstanding person and a man that fought for the freedom of this country.