Joan Furey’s service in the combat zone exposed her to a staggering barrage of brutality and death, forcing her to “perform at a level that far exceeded anything you were prepared for,” she says, while also teaching her the necessity of “shutting down” emotionally in order to do her job. But when Furey, a first lieutenant with the US Army Nurse Corps, returned home in 1970 from her tour of duty in Vietnam, the letters PTSD did not mean anything to anyone, though symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder have been evident in returning soldiers for as long as there have been wars.
After earning her master’s degree in nursing, Furey was hired by the Department of Veteran Affairs, where she helped pioneer a PTSD treatment program to aid traumatized veterans who were often demeaned as “antisocial, drunks, drug abusers, everything negative you can think of,” she says. “It seemed like no one gave any thought to why they might be behaving this way.”
The program helped many of these (mostly) young men, just as she had helped so many in a different capacity overseas—and then there was another person whose pain she diagnosed. “When I started doing this, and the more people talked about PTSD, I said to myself, Joan, you might have this, to some degree.” The nurses with whom she had served, and other female vets, had no one to support them in discussing and processing the horrors they had seen and the stresses they had endured. Early attempts to comfort meant placing these women, says Furey, “in the wives group—you’re putting a woman who had been in Vietnam as a nurse with the wives of Vietnam veterans”—well-meaning, perhaps, but a ticket to greater isolation.
Furey was able to get help for her own “unsealed” experiences, in her word; she became founding director of the VA’s Center for Women Veterans and started a treatment program for women in Palo Alto. Furey believes all of this repair work might not have happened without her time at NYU, which enabled her to think “differently, critically, expanding my worldview.” Says Furey: “We had to take on the establishment to allow us to do things that hadn’t been done before. We had to be able to articulate to them why this was so important.”
Photos courtesy of Joan Furey; Christopher Domurat (medals)
If they can do this, I can do this.
It’s a thought that encouraged Cheryline Pezzullo (part Dominican, part Italian) when she saw fellow minority students thriving in dental school.
So after her classmate Lorel Burns attended an American Dental Association (ADA) leadership conference and returned to campus excited to create a pipeline program at NYU for minority and low-income high school students from the five boroughs, she enlisted Pezzullo’s help. (According to the ADA, in 2015 only 5.2 percent in dentistry were Hispanic, 3.8 percent black.) To address this imbalance, the second-year students cocreated Saturday Academy.
Seven Saturdays each fall, NYU College of Dentistry students meet with high schoolers, with each session split between teaching the kids what it means to be a dentist (the favorite part is the hands-on work with mannequins—taking impressions, making mouthguards, filling cavities, cleaning teeth), then guiding them on the college application process—filling out the Common App, dealing with standardized tests, learning to interview, applying for financial aid, and more. Burns (above right) and Pezzullo (above left) ran the program when they were students, and they now serve as advisers. They’re also both professors at their alma mater; Burns teaches endodontics (procedures involving the tooth’s roots) while Pezzullo teaches cariology (the study of tooth decay).
Saturday Academy just completed its fifth year, seeing 82 students through. Its inaugural cohort will be applying to dental school this year and next, with
71 percent projected to be the first in their family to attend college.
“People have a certain idea of what dentistry is, that it’s just filling cavities,” Pezzullo says. “It’s so much more. You can work with children if you want. You can be a surgeon. You can make dentures. You can make smiles [go] from nothing to something. You can change someone’s life. You can do research. You can do academics. We show them how they can diversify their DDS.”
And, one hopes, the ranks of American dentistry.