perseverance at HEART31 December 2020 Written by By Mike Piscotty
Published in January 2021 Articles
In 2020, the ability to overcome and adapt to change has been more important than ever.
A spirit of tenacity has been the difference-maker. There are some, possibly from no fault of their own, who haven’t weathered the storm. There are others, however, who took a moment to process the challenges and then consciously decided to do whatever it took to rise above them.
This is a story of that kind of resiliency–but not one that only began at the onset of COVID-19. This is a longer journey and a commitment to overcoming adversity and helping others do the same.
The pediatric dental office of Shelby J. Smith, DDS, MS, APC is inspirational in many ways. Dr. Shelby, in a calming and compassionate tone, shared all they do for their patients and what they have had to overcome recently. Success looks and feels different when there is no baseline of normal. And this children’s dental office is excelling beyond what is required, expected, or even imagined.
CARE DURING A PANDEMIC
“Dentistry is completely different now than it was in March,” Dr. Shelby explained. “We work inside the mouth, where procedures can cause saliva and water droplets to enter the air. That type of aerosol can take the virus and suspend it for up to three hours. This makes dentistry very challenging and why dental workers (dentists, hygienists, assistants) are believed to be at the highest risk for catching and spreading the novel coronavirus.”
All dental practices in California were under state orders to close, except for emergency procedures, from the middle of March through the middle of May. A few chose not to reopen because of the daunting and seemingly impossible task of safeguarding against the virus. Others were unable to weather the financial impact of complete shutdown.
For Dr. Shelby’s offices, the closure caused a backlog of 1,500 patients that had to be rescheduled, some of them with emergencies and serious conditions that needed urgent treatment. Dr. Shelby and her team knew that there were a lot of children who needed them. They took on the challenge of operating safely during a pandemic and committed to providing care, reopening on June 1.
She explains, “It affected everything. We had to install curtains, move to paperless operations, see patients in isolated spaces, and wear enhanced PPE (personal protective equipment) that makes us all look the same and only allows children to see our eyes. Plus, enhanced sanitation needs to happen in between patients, including room fogging to kill any aerosol after splashy procedures. It literally changed everything and, for a while, I felt like we were swimming in mud.”
However, she and her team pressed on. “We know that kids are dealing with so much right now and have a lot of anxiety. It was so important for us to spend time reassuring them and making one aspect of life seem as normal as possible.”
It’s that selfless commitment to patient care and relentless devotion to overcoming challenges that sets the team apart.
DR. ALF JOINS THE PRACTICE
Alfonse Doan, DDS, a pediatric dentist who joined Dr. Shelby in February 2020, has a unique backstory of resilience all his own. Dr. Alf was born with sensorineural hearing impairment, severe damage to the auditory nerve, that caused him to be completely deaf in his left ear. Having been raised in Vietnam, Dr. Alf did not have access to healthcare until he moved to America at the age of eight. It wasn’t until then that he received the diagnosis.
“As a child, I always felt alone, even though I was the youngest of five in my family,” Dr. Alf said. “I hear an echo in my head when I talk. It’s like talking and listening at the same time with no stereo perception. I didn’t have communication skills, and it was extremely hard to connect with people.”
“When I was told about the deafness, everything made sense overnight,” he added. “The experience changed my outlook, and I was able to better understand myself. I learned to appreciate the health care system at an early age and immediately wanted to be a role model to other kids. I wanted to help those with disabilities and let them know it was okay to not be okay.”
Growing up with older siblings, Dr. Alf became an uncle at the age of 15. His nieces and nephews also lived in the same household. He quickly became known as “the cool uncle” who they affectionately call Uncle Nine (pronounced: nee-nā). “I realized I’d rather be around the kids than peers. I could invent games, have fun, and use my imagination without needing many words to explain myself,” he said.
Dr. Alf’s affinity for children led him to pursue a career in pediatric dentistry. He had a deep appreciation for health care and wanted to commit his life to helping kids with special needs and disabilities. Dentistry was a natural segue, as his brother and sister were general dentists.
He completed his dental school training at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and immediately went into residency for a pediatric specialty. He completed two additional years at the esteemed New York University (NYU). He then worked for a number of years as a pediatric dentist in Central California.
Dr. Alf and Dr. Shelby met through a former classmate, now an anesthesiologist, and became friends. Dr. Shelby joked that she had been trying to recruit him to work for her for years until, coincidentally, they both purchased homes in the East Bay less than one mile from each other.
“Dr. Alf has a special ability to make children feel comfortable,” Dr. Shelby said. “It was time to bring in someone to care for my second generation of patients, as some of my original patients have grown and had children of their own. Dr. Alf is amazing with kids and fits right in with our culture and commitments here. He even makes balloon animals for the patients and can create swords, flowers, turtles, puppies, frogs, and giraffes!”
"It's that selfless commitment to patient care and relentless devotion to overcoming challenges that sets the team apart"
SERVING ALL ABILITIES
With a passion for helping children deal with challenges and differences, Dr. Alf and Dr. Shelby have committed to making everyone feel welcome.
Dr. Shelby explained, “We are all about lifelong education and relationships … and not just with the parents. We make kids feel like they are heard and seen. We want them to understand what is going on. Often, kids in a medical environment are ignored and overlooked and not seen as a person in their own right. We take the time to speak directly to them, letting them know they are cared about. That is the integral piece in a child trusting you.”
The team works with many children who have special needs, providing necessary accommodations and expert-level sensory modifications. “We are extremely cognizant of their needs, and we spend a considerable amount of prep time for the individual patients, like blocking out the entire office and giving them our sole attention. This eases the parents’ minds, too, as they don’t have to be anxious about disturbing other patients.”
With specific training and continuing education, the team has the skills and experience necessary to treat all abilities–special needs and beyond. “We are relaxed,” Dr. Shelby said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a physical or emotional disability. It doesn’t faze us negatively. No matter what is happening, they don’t get judgment from us. We are a place where they can feel safe.”
“We are a dentist office with a peaceful atmosphere. We are just trying to help people. If we take care of people, everything else will fall into place. We take the time to make them comfortable and have their best interests at heart. It doesn’t take that much longer to be kind.”
The care doesn’t end when the patient leaves the office. The team reconvenes after and debriefs on how it went and how they can improve for the future.
“If we take care of people, everything else will fall into place. We take the time to make them comfortable and have their best interests at heart.”
Dr. Shelby’s dental office provides dual-licensed specialists able to do orthodontics and pediatric dentistry. To book an appointment or for more information on COVID-19 protocols, including enhanced cleaning procedures, safety standards, symptom screening, staggered schedules, social distancing, and more, visit their website at DrShelby.com.
Photos by Linda Johnson