He served countless thousands through decades of service, pushing for better dental care for the poor, advancing fluoridation and the use of mouthguards in sports while also helping to found the dental school at Medical College of Georgia in Augusta.
Even after retirement, Dr. Victor E. Della-Giustina left his mark through legislative service and pushing for better care for veterans in a program that now bears his name,
“Dr. Della,” as he was known to thousands of patients, died Saturday. He was 94.
A native of Springfield, Mass., he came to Augusta in 1957 to serve as a public health dentist and he helped open up access to dental care for the poor at a time when those problems were a major source of absenteeism in school. He pushed for fluoridation in Augusta, North Augusta and surrounding communities. He also convinced Augusta high school football players to begin wearing mouthguards and the rate of mouth injuries dropped dramatically.
It was his report in 1960 at the first sports medicine conference in Georgia that captured the attention of the 300 physicians and coaches in attendance, according to a 1980 editorial in the American Journal of Sports Medicine. Players were at first reluctant to use the mouthguard, particularly quarterbacks, because they thought it would hamper their ability to communicate, Della-Giustina told the conference. But he had an answer for them, and for the conference, as at the end of the report he showed them his mouthguard.
“He had done the whole speech with a mouthpiece in his mouth,” said his daughter, Vicky Sullivan of Kiawah Island, S.C.
“This brought the house down with laughter,” according to the editorial. In the audience was the director of the Georgia High School Athletic Association, who also happened to be president of the national group. Mouthguards were mandatory in Georgia in 1962 and other states quickly followed suit, the editorial noted.
“Think of all of the teeth he has saved,” said Dr. Connie Drisko, dean of the College of Dental Medicine at Georgia Regents University. Della-Giustina also played a pivotal role in the founding of that school. According to “The Early History of the School of Dentistry,” soon after coming to Augusta he “became keenly aware of the deplorable dental condition of the schoolchildren” and pushed for greater public health. But Della-Giustina “realized that elevating the dental health status of the people required dental leadership and better dental services,” according to the history. He met with the then-president of the Medical College of Georgia and Augusta legislators and he and other key dentists in Augusta pushed for the formation of the school. After a series of legislative battles in the early ‘60s, the school was finally authorized by the University System of Georgia Board of Regents in 1965 and was finally funded by the Georgia Legislature in 1966.
An inscription to Della-Giustina’s own copy of the history reads, “Without your major initial and continuing efforts, there would have been no history to record,” the first dean, Dr. Judson C. Hickey, wrote. “Thank you so much for all you have done for one school since then.”
Della-Giustina served as an associate professor of community dentistry for the school in addition to all of his other public health activities.
“He represents the epitome of what public health and dental health, oral health is all about,” Drisko said. “At the same time he was a terrific role model for both our students and for the faculty because he was so very dedicated to public health and community health and really set a high-bar example for both the students and the faculty when he was associated with this school.”
Even after his retirement, he continued to push for better oral health. Della-Giustina noticed when he would make visits to treat patients in nursing homes that the staff often mixed up the dentures of the residents there, his daughter Vicky said. As a member of the Silver-Haired Legislature, he helped get a bill passed that required dentures be tagged with the patient’s Social Security number.
Even after moving to the Georgia War Veterans Home later in life, he continued to inspire others to greater service. Going over occasionally with students to treat residents there, Dr. Kate Ciarrocca met Della-Giustina and shared his concern about caring for the other residents.
“I said it would be wonderful if we could just have dental students come over here and provide oral hygiene for the patients, brushing their teeth, cleaning their dentures,” she said. When some students approached her about doing a public service project at the home, “we thought it would be really appropriate to name it in honor of Dr. Della,” Ciarrocca said. “Dentists for Della” was born and has provided the vehicle to expand services to veterans at the home, which now includes portable units that allow bedside service for those who need it, she said.
“It’s really come full circle, with Dr. Della, being one of the residents, one of the patients, but kind of carrying on his dream,” Ciarrocca said. “It is his name, his legacy and a really great program.”
Outside of those big public efforts were many smaller ones, such as serving as a hospice volunteer and as a eucharistic minister at St. Mary on the Hill Catholic Church. Many of these efforts were done quietly and without fanfare because that is how he wanted it, said his son Victor.
“You have to be born to do what he did, to be able to help as many people as he did,” he said.
Della-Giustina is survived by his wife, Ellen; his children, Catherine Della-Giustina of Augusta, Sandra Forrest of Colorado Springs, Colo., Vicky and Victor, as well as numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A funeral mass will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday at St. Mary, followed by private burial. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to “Dentists for Della,” in care of Georgia Regents University Office of Advancement, 1120 15th St. FI-1000, Augusta, Ga. 30912 or St. Jude’s Hospital, 262 Danny Thomas Place, Memphis, Tenn., 38105.