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Dental lab technicians’ work brings smiles to patients’ faces

By Robert Goetz, 502nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs | April 28, 2017

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas —

When Staff Sgt. Matthew Garcia was weighing his options for an Air Force career field at the time of his enlistment, his recruiter suggested a job he did not know existed.

            “My recruiter said, ‘Why don’t you try this? It’s usually in high demand,’” he said.

            About a decade later, Garcia said he loves the job his recruiter recommended. He is a seasoned dental lab technician in his fifth year with the 359th Aerospace Medicine Squadron at the Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph Dental Clinic. He has also been assigned to JBSA-Lackland and Kadena Air Base, Japan.

            Garcia and his co-worker, Mark Keaton, who has more than 30 years’ experience as an active-duty and civilian dental lab technician, spend their days fabricating prostheses and appliances for their patients, primarily active-duty members.

            “The main things we fabricate are crowns, bridges, implant-retained restorations, night guards, retainers, mouth guards, fluoride trays and sleep apnea devices,” Garcia said.

            A typical day is fairly routine, the San Antonio native said, but special requests arise from time to time.

            “We have a certain number of patients whose prostheses we’re working on,” he said. “Occasionally there are emergency situations where someone has gotten last-minute orders to deploy, but they are not dentally cleared to deploy. In those cases, we must fabricate a ‘rush’ appliance or prosthesis for them, usually requiring a same- or next-day turnaround for whatever it is they're needing, which is usually a crown of some sort.”

            Garcia said dental lab technicians require patience and attention to detail, as well as an artistic touch, as his description of fabricating a gold crown proves.

            “The doctor takes an impression of the patient’s dentition and sends it back to the lab to be ‘poured up’ to fabricate the dental model,” he said. “Once we have a model, we use sculpting wax to create the shape of a tooth. We take that wax tooth, and invest it, or make a mold of stone around the wax tooth, leaving a channel in the stone mold.”

            The “investment” is then placed into an oven and the wax is burned out, leaving the stone mold with the design of the crown inside it, Garcia said.

            “We then place the investment into a casting machine and melt the appropriate amount of gold into its liquid state,” he said. “Once the gold is hot enough, we release the casting machine, which spins very fast and basically throws the molten gold into the channel that was left in the investment, and that reproduces the shape of the crown we originally waxed up. Once that cools, we finish and polish it, and return it to the doctor.”

            When Garcia attended technical school at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, the use of computers for creating crowns was not part of his training. He and Keaton now use a digital 3-D scanner and computer program to design a ceramic tooth, a time-saving approach compared to the traditional method.

            “We can get a crown back to the doctor much quicker,” Keaton said. “When a person is deploying with a short notice and needs a crown, it’s fantastic. If dental conditions are right for the dentist to prepare the tooth for an all-porcelain crown, we can get a crown made in less than a day that can last a lifetime.”

            Garcia and Keaton agree that satisfying a patient is the best part of their job.

            “Most people assume when they lose a tooth one way or another, they just have to go the rest of their lives without that tooth because they don’t realize we have the capability to provide an implant into their bone that can then be used to anchor a new tooth that we can fabricate for them,” Garcia said. “It is very satisfying to see someone come into the clinic trying to hide their teeth, or afraid to smile, and by the time we're done, they can’t stop smiling from ear to ear.”

             “There have been a few patients who wouldn’t open their mouths for anything,” Keaton said. “After we make them something, they seem to have a whole new outlook. I’ve had people recognize me in the gym and thank me for what we at the dental clinic do. That’s a great feeling.”