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Copyright Times Publishing Co. Jul 1, 1994
If parents and kids could design a dentist's office (fat chance, right?), it'd be bright and airy and have video games, toys and stuffed animals all over the place. There'd even be a magic mirror where the Tooth Fairy would appear. It'd be like Chuck-E-Cheese with sinks.
The dentist? He or she would be gentle and kind and would actually remember your name. And there'd be lots of high-fives and presents when you were finished.
Children wouldn't be afraid to go this place, and more importantly, they'd associate dentistry and oral hygene with something necessary and good. Even fun.
Well, there is such a place. And such a dentist.
Earlier this year, when Myles Levitt decided to move his Tyrone-area pediatric dentistry office to larger quarters a few miles north, he asked his patients and their parents to fill out a questionaire and suggest what extras they'd like the new office to have.
Some of the suggestions from the parents presented problems. A floor show? A salad bar? Complimentary massages?
The kids were more realistic. They wanted games and toys and something to play on, like the tugboat Levitt had in his old office.
Well, Levitt thought, why not?
So he put in the Tooth Fairy (a mechanical doll that's operated by remote control), an aquarium, video games, puzzles, stuffed animals and Nickelodeon or TNT 'Toons on demand. If all this is a little too much, there's also a "quiet area" of the waiting room that has a homework table and about 20 different magazines.
But you ain't seen nothin' yet.
Levitt owns probably the only dentist's office in the world that has a submarine in the waiting room. It's not a real sub; Dr. Levitt's Sea Odyssey is a custom-made fiberglass playground in the shape of a sub that has dials, blinking lights, headphones and a life-sized driver in a wet suit.
"I kept the submarine a secret," Levitt said recently during his lunch break. It had been more than a month since his new office opened, and he still seemed excited. "They hoped we had a play area, and I thought to myself, `Wait 'til you see this! It's going to knock your socks off.' "
There's really only one rule here. Adults are asked to stay in the waiting room while their children are treated. Parents are allowed to peek in and watch, of course, but Levitt has found that it's much less stressful for everyone if adults wait in another room.
However, parents are encouraged to bring their children in for a tour before the day of the appointment, and after the appointment is over, it's okay if the children stay a little longer to play.
The man behind all this, the Disney Dentist, if you will, is a 47-year-old father of four, including 5-year-old Kim, whose fingerpainting is proudly displayed over her father's desk.
The desk that's in the shape of a molar.
Watching Levitt work is a study in contrast. One minute he's quietly checking the source of a crooked incisor, and the next he's handing out bracelets and high-fives to a preschooler.
"Let me show you something," he said. He untied his surgical gown to show off the Lion King tie he got as a Father's Day gift.
"Isn't this just great?" he asked.
He says that he wanted to be a dentist ever since he was 12. But not just any dentist. A pediatric dentist.
After he graduated from Emory University in 1970, he and his wife, Pam, moved to St. Petersburg and set up the practice. He did the dental work; she managed the office. After 12 years near Tyrone Square Mall, his practice had outgrown his office. But he wanted more than a bigger place to do his fillings, cleanings and checkups.
He wanted it to be as fun for kids as possible. So he took the suggestions, plus some of his own, to an architect and an interior designer from Austin, Texas and asked them to bring it to life.
He now has 11 chairs, a staff of eight, and a state-of-the-art dentist's office that doubles as a fun center.
Still, the question remains.
Why kids?
"I guess because it's me," he said. "It's just an attitude thing. I love kids; I'm basically one myself.
"And you know," he added, "adults are bigger babies. They need more coddling, and if you show them a drill, they get frightened. But you can show a child how it works, explain to them what's going to happen, and they'll listen."
Levitt wants to get to kids before they hear the horror stories from their parents or other kids about the needles, the drills and that infamous line: "Now this might pinch a little." He wants to get to them before they associate the dentist's office with the House of Pain.
He's not alone. Dentists in general, and pediatric dentists in particular, have taken great pains (no pun intended) to make their offices patient-friendly.
Dr. John Bogert, executive director of the 3,500-member American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, said he knows of a dental office in California that's designed like a space ship, and another in Long Island that has live monkeys.
"What you're seeing is an increasing percentage of dentists who are using expressive office design to help make kids more comfortable," Bogert said from his Chicago office. "I don't think it's a gimmick, because one of the factors in determining whether children comply with good recommendations about dental health is how well they trust and relate to the dentists. And that's all packaged in with the office decor and the staff.
"I'm not saying the same result can't be achieved without it, but for this particular dentist (Levitt) it certainly sounds like it's working."
Carolyn Schafer, a speech therapist from St. Petersburg, sat in the waiting room watching her 3-year-old son Matthew steer the Odyssey through the depths of some imaginary ocean. Matthew had chipped his two front teeth in a fall, and his mother was worried that his permanent teeth might be affected.
She also knew that Matthew would have a large gap in his smile for the next three or four years until his permanent teeth came in, and that would make him look different to the other kids.
So she and Levitt had decided it was best to pull what was left of Matthew's baby teeth and fit him with a sort of kiddie partial that would be cemented in place. Levitt would monitor the grow of Matthew's permanent teeth and remove the partial when his adult teeth began to emerge.
On this visit, Matthew got his new front teeth, although afterward, all he seemed to care about was the Odyssey.
"When I was growing up, going to the dentist was awful. I hated it," Schafer said as Matthew climbed to the sub's second level. "But this ... this is great. It's not threatening.
"Hey, my kids talk about the Tooth Fairy like she's a real person."
The only thing that Schafer said made her sad was wondering about all the kids whose parents can't afford to go to a place like Dr. Levitt's.
"It is a sad situation," Levitt said, adding that that's why he doesn't limit his work to his practice. He volunteers his time at All Children's Hospital, and one day each month, on Special Day, he sees only mentally and physically handicapped kids.
The weekends, however, are his. He usually goes fishing with his family on his 21-foot boat - the ToothWake II.
"There are two things I guess I'll never be," he said with a grin. "A rock star and a golfer."
The sub and the Tooth Fairy aside, there is serious work going on here, and Levitt is always there to hand out a pamphlet or make a plea for dental care.
"One more thing before you go," he said. "Make sure you put in the story that tooth decay is totally preventable by a simple understanding of how plaque produces an acid that eats holes in teeth.
"If you remove the plaque by brushing and flossing, and if you cut down on the candy, soda, sugar cereals, you can save your kids a lot of problems.
"I love good press," he added, "but if we could just get these kids to brush a little more ...