Dentists Plant Confidence

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Neighbors, North Edition, Thursday, December 7, 2000

Dentists plant confidence back in an Arkansas woman

A gift guaranteed to make the Christmas spirit smile 

By Melia Bowie


INQUIRER SUBURBAN STAFF

Kim Purtell left her home in rural Lockesburg, Ark., Monday, boarded a plane for the first time, and put her hopes for a miracle in the hands of a reconstructive dentist, Thomas Balshi of Fort Washington, whom she had never met.

Even on the plane ride, Purtell says, she didn’t smile – and not because her fear of flying was so bad that she cried or because the thought of entering a dentist’s office for the first time in almost a decade triggered terror.

It was, she said, because, at only 30, she had few teeth left to smile with.

“It was embarrassing,” Purtell said.i

She couldn’t look people in the eye. When eating with friends, she would cut food into tiny pieces and swallow them, only pretending to chew. She’d even learned not to scream because forming certain words might cause teeth to go flying.

“It kind of broke our hearts,” Balshi said, describing an e-mail that he received from Purtell, who had learned about him on the Internet. “Here is a young mother with four children, barely able to support her family, and with this tremendous fear of dentists and of her husband finding out. . . . We just felt we had to do something.”

KimSo, at their own expense, Balshi and partner Glenn Wolfinger put Purtell on a plane and, yesterday, gave her the new mouth she had prayed for.

After nearly six hours of surgery – “a Christmas present,” Balshi said – all her remaining teeth were replaced by him, Wolfinger, and lab technician Robert Winkleman.

The procedure – which normally would have cost close to $30,000 – included a full set of upper dentures and a permanent set of implanted lower teeth made of a combination of porcelain and plastic that acts like Plexiglas. “It went great,” Balshi said last night. “She woke up, and she cried.”

A healthy adult mouth has 32 teeth. When Purtell arrived, she had 15, said Balshi, whose practice specializes in restoring missing teeth using implants, crowns and bridges.

“Some were broken,” he said. “All of them were abscessed . . . loose, and in danger of falling out.” Dental care in her part of Arkansas consists largely of country doctors, Purtell said, and though she tried to get good care, her teeth were abscessed even when she was a child.

But it was after an accident 10 years ago, when she slipped on her family’s icy wooden porch, that the nightmare began. “The doctor said when I hit, it shattered all my bone,” she said from an examination chair Tuesday as wax molds of her mouth were being taken to construct custom-made teeth. The fall had knocked her top front teeth to the back of her mouth. A local dentist pulled them forward, then had to repeatedly solder them. Her bottom teeth were jarred so badly, meanwhile, that some were shaken loose.

After years of pain, Purtell said, she made the decision to travel to a “professional” dentist, a visit that ended with humiliation and a vow never to return to a dentist’s office. “He was very arrogant,” she said. “It crushed my heart.”

After a youth filled with gum disease, abscessed teeth and deteriorating bone, “it was kind of like a domino effect,” said Balshi, whom Purtell randomly discovered after seeing literature at work on dental implants. “When she started losing teeth, everything fell apart.”

“You don’t want to think you’re ugly,” said Purtell, who works for Electrolux Home Products. “Your teeth, that’s one of the first things people look at when they see you. “I know it sounds stupid,” she said, but as tooth after tooth slipped away, so did her self-confidence. “I did the best I could and put them back in place.”

Three years ago, she found that she had to tell her husband. “He didn’t know,” she said. “It put a strain on my marriage because he didn’t think I cared for him. I didn’t kiss him. I was afraid if I did, my teeth would fall out . . . and I just wasn’t having that.”

Balshi has performed more than 16,000 surgeries in the 28 years since founding his practice, Pi Dental Center, which operates inside Winkleman’s Dental Laboratory in Fort Washington.

After surveying her mouth yesterday, Purtell said: “I feel blessed.”

Pi Dental Center, Fort Washington, PA