Local dentist aids in post-mortem efforts
With Puerto Rico still struggling to recover months after the effects of Hurricane Maria, the efforts of Dr. Nicholas Vernice, who is part of the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team (DMORT), is an unsung part of helping the island’s residents get back on their feet. The DMORT is a team of experts in the fields of victim identification and mortuary services. Consisting of between 40 to 50 members per unit, DMORT teams are a part of the National Disaster Medical System (NDMS) and are deployed in response to large-scale disasters in the United States to assist in the identification of deceased individuals and storage of the dead pending the bodies being claimed.
“Hurricane Maria put people’s health and safety in jeopardy, and NDMS members are answering the call of duty to help residents affected by this disaster,” said NDMS Acting Director Ron Miller. “When a state requests our assistance, we respond and serve until NDMS services are no longer needed.”
Personnel are comprised of civilian funeral directors, medical examiners, coroners, pathologists, forensic anthropologists, fingerprint specialists, dentists, forensic odontologists, dental assistants and radiographers. They are supported by medical records technicians and transcribers, mental health specialists, computer professionals, administrative support staff and security and investigative personnel. Vernice was part of a 43-man team that operated out of the San Juan morgue for a full month, where he assisted local authorities with performing forensic dental pathology procedures and victim identifications and where he had a front-row seat to the struggles Puerto Rican citizens are currently undergoing.
“We worked 12-hour days—that were seven days a week pretty much. The days run into each other and there were times when we didn’t realize what day of the week it was. We served at the pleasure of the local authorities there and we assisted in any way that they needed,” he recalled. “The devastation was pretty severe. Not only the toll on the people, but on the buildings. There was significant damage and it looks like recovery is going to take a really long time. It’s heart-breaking to see how people’s lives have been severely disrupted and it’s really a shame what happened there.”
The Garden City dentist, who has called the village home for more than 25 years with his wife RoseAnn and their two children Alexandra and Nicholas, has been a part of the DMORT team since initially volunteering to work with the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and operating in the city morgue in the aftermath of 9/11. Having met with representatives from DMORT, Vernice was deemed to be a good fit and eventually was deployed to Louisiana after the region was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. While maintaining his own dental practice, Vernice is a full-time clinical instructor of operative and forensic dentistry at NYU College of Dentistry. It’s this kind of skill set that’s allowed him to give back to people victimized by Mother Nature in places like Puerto Rico and Louisiana.
“DMORT is morgue operations, so we deal with the worst part of the disaster. But it’s a necessary part—helping identify victims of the disaster,” he said. “Knowing that we’ve helped these people and the community recuperate from all this devastation and providing a service that helps these people get through it any way we can is a rewarding feeling.”
To give aid to Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Maria relief effort, visit www.redcross.org or call 1-800-redcross.