If it wasn't for surfing, Navy Lt. Cmdr. (Dr.) Jay Ross wouldn't be a dentist. The relationship between his pastime and profession might not be obvious, but Ross explained the connection recently while caring for patients in the tiny town of Wise, Virginia, during a humanitarian mission called Appalachian Care 2019.
Ross developed an interest in surfing while in college. He took trips to Central America to find the best surfing locations, and saw firsthand the needs of impoverished people living there.
"As surfers, we travel around the world to find the best waves, and most of the best waves are in third-world countries. I would go down there to steal their waves, and I felt like I wasn’t doing anything but taking."
He was studying animal science at the time, planning to go to veterinary school. But then a cousin who was a dentist gave him another idea.
Ross agreed to go on a humanitarian outreach program to rural Oregon with his cousin, who, along with other dentists, performed simple but vital procedures on first-generation immigrant farmers. Ross saw the good that could be done with basic dental procedures.
"I was watching all these dentists working on these people who don't speak the same language, who don't have anything in common, but are coming to them in pain, and they're their only option to get out of pain. I saw that and I was just blown away. I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I could travel around the world, surf, and give back. All I really need is a suitcase with a little air compressor and I can do dentistry.'"
Overnight, Ross changed his major. He transferred to the University of Southern California and joined the Navy for financial aid. After his four years of school, he found himself with no student loans and a full-time job with patients at the ready.
By his second year, he was the sole dental provider for a battalion of more than 600 people.
He eventually opened a private practice in Ventura, California, next to the Naval Base Ventura County installation. Today he works as a Naval reservist, volunteering on military medical missions like the one in Wise whenever he can.
Appalachian Care 2019 was what the military calls an Innovative Readiness Training event, which offers health care to underserved communities while providing training to military medical professionals like Ross. He has participated in two of them.
"It's all I volunteer for now," he said.
"I think for the servicemen and women, [Innovative Readiness Training events are] just a great opportunity," he said. "It's just another way we can make America stronger because we're providing a medical service free of charge. And it's good-quality care."
It's not just the care that Ross values, though — it's the education that goes with it.
The lack of knowledge of basic dental care and to avoid certain foods and drinks is a major reason why many communities are in such high need. During Appalachian Care, children were perhaps the biggest target of education for the dental professionals involved, not just for the sake of their smiles, but for the sake of their futures.
"You start there, and you can change their life," Ross said. "Kids have an advantage because they have two sets of teeth. And when I talked to the young patients, most of them don’t even know they could join the military, that they could do something different with their life. To be able to share that with someone, that's what blows me away."
Adapted from an article by Air Force Staff Sgt. Jacob Cessna