Like many family members of cancer patients, Stephen Matarazzo, DMD, wanted a meaningful way to thank the Dana-Farber caregivers who saved his son Michael’s life. What he came up with involved offering his own professional expertise to protect the smiles of others.
A dentist based in Quincy, Mass., Matarazzo provides pro bono dental exams and services to cancer and benign hematology patients who, like his son did, need stem cell transplants. Dental visits are critical transplants suppress the immune system, and patients are at significant risk for developing infections – in some cases life-threatening ones. The oral cavity and teeth are a potential site of infection; therefore, all stem cell transplant patients must undergo an extensive dental evaluation prior to the procedure. All cavities, cracked teeth, root canals, and other issues must be fixed prior to transplants, or serious complications can occur.
“Careful attention to oral and dental health is critical to the success of stem cell transplantation,” says Robert Soiffer, MD, chief of Hematologic Malignancies at Dana-Farber and co-chief of the Stem Cell Transplantation Program at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center (DF/BWCC). “Infection from oral sources can lead to serious complications after transplant. We are grateful for Dr. Matarazzo’s generosity.”
The transplantation program at DF/BWCC is one of the largest in the country, and requires oral X-rays and physical exams pre-transplant. The Division of Oral Medicine and Dentistry at Brigham and Women’s Hospital sees many of these patients, and works closely with community dentists in guiding management of their patients in preparation for transplant.
Such procedures can be very expensive, however, and they are not typically covered by medical insurance – even if cancer-related. It is in these cases that Matarazzo steps in, helping patients who otherwise could not afford the services.
Matarazzo has been providing his services for nearly a decade, since his son was in treatment for acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) at Dana-Farber from 2006-2009. Diagnosed at age 19, Michael Matarazzo made a complete recovery and is now a skier conquering the most challenging mountains of Colorado. Through his unique – and ongoing – gestures of appreciation, Michael’s father is doing his part to help others on the road to recovery.
“Some of our neediest patients have not seen a dentist for years, and may not have the money for one because they have been sick and out of work,” says clinical coordinator Gail Delaney. “When I spoke to Dr. Matarazzo for the first time with such a case, and learned his whole story, I was almost in tears. This man just has so much gratitude for his son’s health that he wants to keep giving back.”
Patients sent to the Quincy Smile Center for pre-transplant work are welcomed as kindred spirits. Before any dental work is done, “Dr. Steve” (as everyone calls him) and his treatment coordinator Joanne – also his wife of 34 years – meet with each individual and his or her family to hear their cancer experiences and share their own. These sessions often get emotional.
“Pre-transplant dental work causes a lot of anxiety for any patient, and we understand their fear and pain, because we’ve been through it,” says Matarazzo. “If a patient’s family also has to worry about how they are going to pay for this important work, it can be devastating.”
Occasionally the Matarazzos continue their relationships with patient families indefinitely. Graft-versus-host-disease, a serious post-transplant complication in which donor cells attack a patient’s body, can in some cases cause extensive dental decay, sending patients back to Quincy for more work. Dr. Steve provides this dental care free as well, along with regular check-ups and cosmetic procedures he knows will help cancer survivors regain their smiles – and their lives.