Glen Dean: Longtime GJ dentist feels for those who struggle to get insurance
Portrait 2011 — Volume 2: Hot Right Now
Jacob was not happy.
His breath came in the “hup-hup-hup” that follows a big cry and his face was crumpled with misery.
“Hey, Jacob,” Dr. Glen Dean said, smiling.
“You did a really great job today.”
“I know you’re not happy now. But you were brave today. You were a helper.”
Nudged by his mother, Jacob offered a mumbled thank you, avoiding eye contact, and resumed his well-deserved self-pity. He was having a rotten day: four fillings, two baby root canals, three extractions and two crowns.
Dean, 63, lightly patted the 11-year-old’s shoulder, knowing that anything more might draw further tears, and walked away. Sometimes it’s the kindest thing to do.
“I hurt him,” Dean acknowledged later. “It was unavoidable. But he came in hurting and he’d been hurting for a while. He’s never consistently seen a dentist. And now all his work’s done, and with regular visits he’ll be in a much better situation.”
Jacob’s never had consistent care because he’s never had consistent insurance. Dean has long been one of just a handful of pediatric dentists in the Grand Valley who generally accept patients with Medicaid, for which he gets 35 percent reimbursement, and Child Health Plan Plus, at 65 percent reimbursement. It has been a leap of faith, that the balance of his business would make up for the work he feels driven to do.
“Except by the grace of God go I,” he explained. “So much can happen in life, things you can never anticipate, and suddenly you’re in a position you’d never planned for.”
“His philosophy has always been that you can’t blame a child if they’re in pain,” said his wife, Alison. “Children often don’t have any control over the situations they’re in.”
On Dec. 20, Dean moved the practice from its longtime location at 2525 N. Eighth St. to a new, much larger location at 2552 F Road. His son, Derek, 29, joined the practice as a general dentist in July, and orthodontist Spencer Johnson joined in November. Now, Dean said, it’s more collaborative, with a name change to Oral Health Partners and the addition of many new services, including orthodontia, cosmetic dentistry and adult dental care.
Ideally, Dean said, he and his partners will begin seeing patients as children and continue working with them through adulthood. He hopes to expand the practice to three general dentists and two pediatric dentists, as well as an orthodontist.
He also plans to continue working with Medicaid and CHP Plus patients, as well as his twice-yearly visits to Guatemala to work in a dental clinic he helped establish there.
“I think he’s better off if he stays busy and doesn’t retire,” wsaid, laughing. “He’s never had time to get a hobby.”
Dean has always been busy. He grew up in Midvale, Utah, and was occupied with all the usual things: family, school, friends, Boy Scouts, sports. One of his neighbors down the street was a dentist and, through getting to know him at church, Dean decided to become a dentist, too. He studied medical biology at the University of Utah, where he met Alison, and got accepted a year early to study dentistry at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. He earned his DDS in 1974.
During his last year of dental school he joined the ROTC, which helped pay for school, and after graduating completed a three-year tour of duty with the U.S. Air Force in Germany. Their first child, Laurel, was 6 weeks old when they left for Europe.
After returning to the U.S., Dean completed a two-year pediatric dental residency at Milwaukee Children’s Hospital while studying for a master’s degree in pediatric dentistry at Marquette University and working part-time as a general practice dentist. He finished his degree in 1983, after coming to the Grand Valley.
He, Alison and their family — which expanded to Laurel, Jared and Derek — moved to the Grand Valley in 1979 and Dean established a pediatric dental practice.
For a long time it was a standard practice, he said, but when Derek got into middle school he stopped wanting his dad to join him for lunch on Fridays. So, with that free time, Dean began seeing more and more low-income patients.
He’d spent years seeing what can, and did, go wrong when children didn’t get the dental care they needed and didn’t practice good habits at home. He saw the associated social problems, the baggage parents dragged behind them that inadvertently affected their children. He remembered a patient he’d met in Milwaukee who came into the emergency room for a tooth infection but, once he got home, stopped taking the antibiotics he’d been prescribed.
“He had no real parental supervision, he was an inner-city kid from a tough situation,” Dean recalled. “So, when he quit taking the antibiotics he developed a staph infection that was penicillin-resistant. It took him three years to die.
“I guess that’s one of the reasons I do it.”
He acknowledged that he can’t save everybody, that the problems are sometimes beyond what he can solve, but that the most important thing is to do what he can.
In 2002, he joined Derek and Brigham Young University’s pre-dental study club on a trip to Guatemala. Dean had served a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Guatemala in the late 1960s and loved the people there. On that trip with Derek, he gained a clear professional picture of how he could help the people there.
Since then, he has returned to Guatemala often with volunteer medical teams, working mostly in the area around Lake Atitlan. He helped established a one-chair clinic in a little hospital that was swamped by mudslides during Hurricane Stan in 2005 but is being rebuilt. He shows off photos of the hospital’s progress like a proud father.
He left for Guatemala again on March 11, this time part of a team taking a five-chair mobile clinic, which he assembled, to a 150-child orphanage in Retalhuleu.
“He truly loves to be down there,” Alison said. “When he’s there, he can get away from the day-to-day stuff up here, and he has a lot of friends down there, a lot of personal contacts.”
When he returns March 20, he’ll continue working on the final stages of the new building. At 9,000 square feet, it’s almost four times bigger than the old space and includes features he’d long wanted in a dental practice: larger patient rooms, cutting-edge equipment, eco-friendly heating and cooling technologies, more privacy between common and patient areas, and room to grow.
In July, another general practitioner will join Oral Health Partners and, Dean said, he hopes it will be a step in the practice’s continued growth.
He also is active in the LDS Church, and he and Alison have 10 grandkids whom they try to see often.
“He’s not happy unless he’s got a million irons in the fire,” Alison said, laughing.
He admitted that a car accident six years ago, during which his truck hydroplaned near Westwater and rolled three times, was a serious reality check.
“That could have been it,” he said. “But it wasn’t. So, obviously, there’s more work to do.”