HomeNewsA new reason to smile: VCU School of Dentistry helps man recapture his smile after overcoming addiction

A new reason to smile: VCU School of Dentistry helps man recapture his smile after overcoming addiction

The VCU School of Dentistry’s clinics provide holistic and comprehensive care to patients with complex needs while teaching the next generation of oral health care professionals.

Charles Janus, D.D.S, and fourth-year dental student Carolyn Recupero fit dentures for Jack Kaufman. (VCU School of Dentistry)

By Mackenzie Meleski

Recovery can be a long and winding road, and for many people it can start by finding the courage to seek help.

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

Kaufman first became addicted to prescription pain medication after getting his wisdom teeth removed as a teen. His substance abuse increased when he entered college, where he began drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana and using heroin. The imprisonment of his father during this time resulted in Kaufman leaving college and moving home where his problems worsened.

“I didn’t take care of my teeth at all during that point,” Kaufman said.

Everything changed for Kaufman when he met Kristen, who would later become his wife. With her encouragement, Kaufman found the courage to seek treatment for alcohol and substance abuse. He credits speaking to a therapist at Crossroads Treatment Center in Richmond and being prescribed proper medication as key components to maintaining sobriety.

Kaufman found a career working in a logistics warehouse. He and Kristen eventually married and moved onto a five-acre farm in Petersburg, where they reside with their many dogs, cats and horses. Inspired by Kristen’s lifelong love for horses, the couple rescue horses, train them and nurse them to health on their farm. They hope to eventually turn this passion into a business.

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

He has now been sober for five years.

For Kaufman, everything was falling into place. However, a problem remained.

“My teeth were the last thing that was holding me back to my old drug addiction life,” Kaufman said. “And it was always such a struggle trying to just get one tooth extracted at a time, and it was so defeating trying to find a dentist who would be able to take payments at an incremental rate.”

To Kaufman, seeking proper oral health care felt “hopeless.” Not only were the expenses daunting, but finding time to attend appointments while working full time to support his family was extremely difficult.

After learning about VCU School of Dentistry through online research, Kaufman scheduled his first appointment. There, he met and connected with Charles Janus, D.D.S.

“I always hated coming to the dentist because of the trauma that comes with pulling teeth and I have a very high pain tolerance where anesthesia and numbing agents don’t work very well on me,” Kaufman said. “So, there was a lot of trauma there, but the people here were super nice, and I told my whole story to Dr. Janus, and always had a strong connection with him, so he encouraged me to keep coming back.”

The path to recovery leads to a new smile

The road to a full set of dentures can be long. To promote continuity of care as student providers graduate, patients are transitioned to rising students under the supervision of faculty. Janus and faculty colleague Sorin Uram, D.D.S., oversaw Kaufman’s care for the entire three-year period.

“Every time I see him, he’s so grateful and humble,” Janus said. “The thing that made him so unique is how he just changed his life.”

The process began with screenings and exploring treatment plans. He was faced with either realigning his teeth or having them pulled. Kaufman debated his options for six months, eventually electing to have his teeth pulled and dentures made.

Charles Janus, D.D.S., Jack Kaufman and fourth-year dental student Carolyn Recupero. (VCU School of Dentistry)

For Kaufman, finding a treatment plan that was within his budget and could be flexible with his work schedule was of utmost importance.

“I liked VCU because I felt like the students listened to what I wanted and needed,” Kaufman said. “I had a lot of triggers coming in, with the needles reminding me of prior drug usage, but the students were always very reassuring and helpful with that.” 

Fourth-year dental student Carolyn Recupero assisted in creating and fitting Kaufman’s dentures in late summer 2023. By this point, all his teeth were extracted, and he had two implants placed.

“With any denture patient, it’s a long process,” Recupero said. “It’s a lot of appointments, and we want to make sure everything fits well. He had a long journey ahead of him.”

Kaufman received his dentures in January 2024, and continues to visit the School of Dentistry for adjustment appointments.

“It was really rewarding to be a part of this process,” Recupero said. “He worked really hard to get to this point, saved a lot of money and went through a lot. He seems to be in such a good place right now.”

Finding the strength and courage to seek help was difficult, but it was all worth it in the end, Kaufman says.

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

“The treatment I’ve received from the students and doctors has been a truly life-changing experience,” Kaufman said.