Reservist Dentist Waits For Return Call To Persian Gulf

Shipboard Dentistry Has Special Problems

September 23, 1990|By Rosalia M. Scalia | Rosalia M. Scalia,Contributing writer

Ellicott City dentist Douglas D. Wright is a reservist with a double perspective on the current Middle East crisis. While he hasn't been called up to serve -- he's already gotten his warning letter -- he is no stranger to the boiling waters of the Persian Gulf.

As a dentist aboard the USS Trenton, which was deployed there for six months in 1988, Lieutenant Wright was one of two dentists afloat for all American forces then in the Gulf. The Trenton acted as a floating dock for both the 400-man marine air-ground task force and as a mother ship for minesweepers patrolling the troubled Middle Eastern waters.

Wright practiced dentistry in an environment regularly disrupted by a "general quarters" alarm, which signals a condition of combat readiness on war ships and requires crew members to remain at battle stations with guns and ammunition ready for loading.

"If I were filling a cavity, I'd have to make sure I would have a temporary filling ready to go -- because if we thought we were going to GQ, the most important concern was to safely dismiss the patient as quickly as possible," Wright said.

"If I had to pull a tooth, I would try to wait until we were either at anchor or in port because we needed everybody ready to perform his job at a moment's notice," he said.

He typically worked 12 to 16 hours daily, dividing his time between patients and administrative duties.

Besides tending to the teeth of hundreds of uniformed Americans, during GQ he also was trained to man the aft battle dressing station, one of four stations on the ship for treating combat casualties on the ship. Because of Wright's additional training in combat emergency care, he was also a member of the ship's shock trauma team.

While Wright was aboard the Trenton, the USS Samuel B. Roberts hit a mine in the Persian Gulf, causing 10 casualties. One of the wounded soldiers was flown to the Trenton for treatment.

"At that point, our training stopped being an exercise and became the real thing. This sailor was seriously burned and needed fast medical assistance in order to live," he said. On the Trenton, Wright treated the sailor, who survived his injuries and was later flown to a burn center in Texas for further care.

In addition to occasionally treating the crewmen of the Trenton, Wright also was responsible for dental care of other units in the Persian Gulf, including the staff at the American consulate in Ad Damman, Saudi Arabia.

"If someone (in the American forces) in the Persian Gulf had a toothache, they were literally picked up by helicopter and flown to me," Wright said.

Wright found himself handling emergencies such as impacted wisdom teeth and abscesses. But he also helped to treat split lips and broken noses.

"Sometimes it was difficult working when we were in the Gulf because it was so hot. Even with air conditioning, in the clinic, the temperature could reach 90 degrees or more. This inspired some tricks like keeping silver amalgam and X-ray developing solution in the small refrigerator we had in the clinic," Wright said.

This wasn't the 32-year-old's first time on ship. He tasted his first experience as a sailor as a deck hand aboard the original Pride of Baltimore. He sailed for three weeks, from Bath, Maine to Boston Harbor during the summer break in 1984 while a student at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry. He served as a sailor trainee, performing typical yeoman work during his three-week tour.

Wright grew up just over the Howard County line in Catonsville, Baltimore County, and after graduating from Catonsville Senior High in 1976, attended the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. From there, he went on to the University of Maryland Pharmacy School, receiving his degree in 1981. Then came the University of Maryland Dental School. He graduated from there in 1985 and joined the Navy shortly after his graduation from dental school.

Before Wright could qualify to work the tooth mines in the USS Trenton, however, he underwent extensive training beginning with a two-year stint at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego.

During this time, Wright worked in three-month specialty rotations in oral surgery, oral diagnoses, root canals and periodontal disease.

"Those rotations also helped my develop my professional judgment. In the Gulf, you don't have the luxury of calling up some specialist that is right around the corner with whom to consult," he said.

"I think the military is performing a vital function in the Middle East.

If I'm called, it would be a tough thing to leave my new practice, but I would go."

Staff writer Patrick Hickerson contributed to this story

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