VANCOUVER — Dr. Charlie DuFort says the 26 years he spent in the Air Force have served him well in his volunteer work at the Free Clinic of Southwest Washington.
“Having been affiliated with the military,” DuFort says, “when veterans come in it’s easy to identify with them — their concerns and problems and background.”
The military was part of DuFort’s life from the very beginning, and so was health care. He was born at what was then Walter Reed General Hospital during World War II.
“Talk about an Army brat!” he says.
His father was a pharmacist and hospital administrator, first in the Army Air Corps and later in the Air Force; his mother was a nurse.
DuFort became a dentist, joined the Air Force himself, and served at bases across the United States and around the world, including Texas, Georgia, New Jersey, Ohio, Germany, the Philippines and Okinawa.
Then, in 1996, DuFort retired. He says his roots are in New England, and that’s where he had expected to retire. Actually, he might have retired anywhere in the country, really, besides the Pacific Northwest, the one part of the country he’d never lived in.
“So where does God put you?” DuFort grins.
He ended up beginning two new careers — as a professor at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, and as a prosthodontist in private practice in Vancouver.
As a prosthodontist, he works to restore whatever is missing in a person’s mouth.
“After cancer, or trauma of some kind — gunshot wounds,’’ DuFort said. “I restore structures that can’t be replaced by a plastic surgeon.”
And he has volunteered for over 10 years at the Free Clinic, which provides basic health care as well as dental, vision, and other specialty care to uninsured and underinsured residents of southwest Washington. Last year, DuFort and other volunteers donated almost 30,000 hours to the clinic.
The clinic accepts donations of vehicles and a wide variety of in-kind items including insulin, toothpaste, band-aids, hand sanitizer, office supplies, domestic phone cards, and food and beverages for volunteers. To donate online, or for more information on vehicle and in-kind donations, go to freeclinics.org and click on Give in the upper right corner.
Free Clinic of Southwest Washington
The clinic accepts donations of vehicles and a wide variety of in-kind items including insulin, toothpaste, band-aids, hand sanitizer, office supplies, domestic phone cards, and food and beverages for volunteers.
To donate online, or for more information on vehicle and in-kind donations, go to freeclinics.org and click on Give in the upper right corner.
DuFort spends most of his time at the Free Clinic seeing veterans.
“Everyone’s got a story to tell,” he says. “Some are very sad. Some are inspiring. It’s a privilege to support and help them. And they’re so grateful: ‘Thank you! Thank you!’”
DuFort says he enjoys maintaining the interservice rivalries that traditionally exist between members of different military services.
“There’s teasing back and forth,’’ he said. “Maybe they’re in pain, or discomfort. And it eases them.”
DuFort speaks highly of the resources available to veterans in southwest Washington.
“Clark County, more so than most places I’ve been, has made efforts to welcome veterans, to help veterans,’’ he said. “There’s a lot of outreach in Clark County to support or make welcome people in need.”
DuFort says he also enjoys being part of a team at the Free Clinic.
“As a team under the same roof so much is multi-disciplinary,’’ he said. “In private practice, you communicate by computer, or phone. And more things fall through the cracks. The team is so important.”
Many of the volunteers at the Free Clinic, DuFort says, are aspiring dental hygienists or dentists.
“One woman today is in the process of applying to dental school,’’ he said. “To be here on their day off, they’re really motivated. It’s nice to associate with them.”
An avid hiker, scuba diver, and mountain climber, DuFort has had to ease up on some of that in recent years. But he doesn’t dwell on losses.
“This (good thing) wouldn’t have happened unless that (bad thing) had happened,’’ he said. “Good and bad were all good in that I learned from all of it. I don’t belabor the bad.”
He says he used to feel most alive on the top of a mountain he had just summited.
“Now, it’s probably when I’m doing something special for a patient,’’ he said. “It’s challenging to make it work. But when it all comes together, it’s pretty gratifying. That, and the support and love of my family.”
Married 44 years, DuFort and his wife have three adult children, two of whom have followed DuFort into healthcare professions — a daughter who works as an emergency room nurse at Legacy Salmon Creek Hospital, and a son who is a cancer researcher in Seattle.
DuFort has been retired from the military for 20 years now. But his time in the military continues to affect, not just his volunteer work at the Free Clinic, but his outlook on life.
“I’ve been in the Air Force in the Third World,” he says, “and we had something called the Civic Actions Group, that served underserved people. I did that quite often. It was a great experience. And it transferred over here. You see the Third World — the culture and poverty and government — and then you come back to the United States. We should be very grateful and thankful that we have what we have.”