Navy Dentist Stays Busy at Guantanamo Bay Detainee Camp
By Kathleen T. Rhem
NAVAL STATION GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba, Feb. 18, 2005 -- When Navy Lt. Jennifer Tharp started her current job, her greatest fear was that she'd get bitten. But so far, that fear has proved unfounded.
Tharp is the only dentist assigned to Joint Task Force Guantanamo here. She's responsible for the dental health of the 2,200 JTF personnel as well as the roughly 545 detainees held here.
An active-duty dentist deployed from Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., Tharp admits she was nervous about treating detainees. "My biggest fear was that I would get bitten," she said. In reality, she now says she's never even felt threatened while treating a detainee.
"I don't feel unsafe," she said, noting that guards are always present and detainees are shackled while she treats them. Though no detainee has ever become violent during dental treatment, Tharp said she still takes precautions, such as using bite blocks within detainees' mouths. But, she added, she takes similar precautions with other patients as well.
Tharp said the dental health of the detainees varies widely. Some clearly had never seen a dentist before being treated here. Others have had high-quality Western-style dental work.
Working at Guantanamo Bay has brought some interesting experiences as a dentist. "It's very interesting, because a lot of (the detainees) have never had dental work," Tharp said.
Tharp said she also finds it interesting that many in the detainee population "have a major aversion" to having teeth removed, even when it's clearly the best course of action medically. "So even if a tooth is completely nonrestorable and is at risk of infection and the best treatment of choice is to remove the tooth, they will not allow you to remove it," she said.
When she's asked detainees why they feel this way, many have given her religious-based answers. "'God gave you this tooth, so why would you want to take it out of your body,' is one statement I've received from a detainee," she said.
The lieutenant said she's seen things here that she'd likely never see in a typical career as an American dentist, from congenital defects to "amounts of calculus and tartar that I didn't know existed."
The job brings its challenges, as well, one of the most significant being the communications barrier, Tharp said. A translator is always available when needed, but complex medical discussions are sometimes difficult to translate. "You have to explain it first to the translator and hope that they're getting it across the way that you want it to get across," she said.
The sheer workload of providing a high standard of dental care single-handedly to such a large population is also a challenge. Until recently, detainees were provided dental care whenever they had a complaint. Tharp is now working to provide routine dental care on a recurrent basis to each detainee.
"A lot of what they've done up until this time has all been on a sick-call basis, where the detainee requests dental care and then we respond, which is a fairly inefficient system," she said.
To begin with, each detainee needs to be brought up to a dental baseline. Tharp explained that this means she's trying to provide dental care that detainees require to bring them to a certain level of dental health. Then it will be easier to continue on a regular schedule of cleanings and check-ups.
Because she's been working to "baseline" the detainees, a large portion of Tharp's time is dedicated to detainee care. But, she's quick to add, "That in no way means my troopers are being left in the dust." JTF servicemembers always receive an appointment when they require care, she said.
Tharp said the detainees receive excellent care on par with or above typical standards of care American civilians generally receive. JTF Commander Army Brig. Gen. Jay Hood agrees. "Dental care (for detainees) has been first-rate," he said.