VCU School of Dentistry helps man recapture his smile after overcoming addiction

Mackenzie Meleski

Recovery can be a long and winding road, and for many it can begin with finding the courage to seek help.

When Jack Kaufman visited the dental clinic at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry for the first time in December 2021, he was preparing to begin a new journey. After years of battling drug addiction, the 28-year-old Pittsburgh, Pa., native needed tooth extractions, dental implants and eventually a set of dentures.

Kaufman first became addicted to prescription painkillers after having his wisdom teeth removed as a teenager. As he entered college, his substance abuse increased and he began drinking, smoking marijuana, and using heroin. During this time, his father's incarceration caused Kaufman to leave college and move back home, where his problems worsened.

“I wasn't taking care of my teeth at all during that time,” Kaufman said.

Everything changed when Kaufman met Christine, who later became his wife. With her encouragement, Kaufman found the courage to seek treatment for alcohol and drug abuse. He believes talking to a therapist at Richmond's Crossroads Treatment Center and taking the appropriate medications are the keys to staying sober.

Kaufman found a job in a logistics warehouse. He and Christine eventually married and moved to a five-acre farm in Petersburg, where they lived with many dogs, cats, and horses. Inspired by Christine's lifelong love of horses, the couple rescued horses on the farm, training them and caring for their health. They hope to eventually turn that passion into a business.

“She really brought me back,” Kaufman said of his wife.

Today, he has been sober for five years.

For Kaufman, everything is on track. However, the problem remains.

“My teeth were the last thing holding me back from going back to my old drug-addicted life,” Kaufman said. “It's always difficult to extract one tooth at a time, and so is trying to find a dentist who can charge incrementally.”

For Kaufman, the search for proper oral care felt “desperate.” Not only is the cost prohibitive, but finding time to attend appointments while working full-time to support a family is also extremely difficult.

After researching online about the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry, Kaufman scheduled his first appointment.There he met and formed a relationship with Charles Janus of DDS

“I've always hated going to the dentist because extractions are traumatic, and my pain tolerance is so high that anesthesia and numbing agents don't work well for me,” Kaufman said. “So, there was a lot of trauma there, but the people here were so nice and I told Dr. Janus my whole story and I've been in close contact with him, so he encouraged me to keep coming back.”

The road to recovery brings a new smile

The road to getting a full set of dentures can be a long one. To facilitate continuity of care for students after graduation, patients transition to rising students under the supervision of faculty. Janus and colleague Sorin Uram, DDS, oversaw Kaufman's care throughout the three-year period.

“Every time I see him, he's so grateful and humble,” Janus said. “What made him so unique was that he changed his life.”

The process begins with screening and exploring treatment plans. He was faced with either having to realign his teeth or have them extracted. Kaufman debated his options for six months before ultimately choosing to have his teeth extracted and dentures made.

Three people standing together and smiling

Charles Janus, DDS, Jack Kaufman, and fourth-year dental student Carolyn Recupero. (Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry)

For Kaufman, it was crucial to find a treatment plan that was within his budget and flexible enough to fit around his work schedule.

“I like VCU because I feel like the students heard what I wanted and needed,” Kaufman said. “I have a lot of triggers and needles remind me of my past drug use, but the students have always been very reassuring and helpful.”

In late summer 2023, fourth-year dental student Carolyn Recupero assisted Kaufman in making and fitting dentures. .

“This is a long process for any denture patient,” Recupero said. “There are a lot of dates and we want to make sure everything goes well. He still has a long way to go.

Kaufman received the dentures in January 2024 and continued to attend the dental school for adjustment appointments.

“It's really rewarding to be a part of this process,” Recupero said. “He worked very hard to get to this point, saved a lot of money, and went through a lot. It seems like he is in a very good situation now.

Kaufman said finding the strength and courage to ask for help is difficult, but it's all worth it in the end.

He advises others who need help, whether with oral health or personal issues, to talk to a therapist and build a strong support system around themselves. When faced with difficulties, he learned to set goals for himself and get closer to the end result every day.

“The treatment provided by the students and doctors truly changed my life,” Kaufman said.

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