FEATURE Story — Summer 2011

 

Architect of Smiles

Rich and poor, healthy and sick, the children who visit pediatric dentist Dale Nickelsen get the care they need and the smiles they deserve

By Steve Hendershot
Photography by Lloyd DeGrane

Dr. Dale Nickelsen

Dr. Dale Nickelsen

The young patients sink back into the dentist’s chair, and if they aren’t reading all the notes on the wall—full of encouraging messages like, “Thank you for helping my teeth!”—then they’re probably staring up at the ceiling, waiting for the electric train to pass by. Erica Rios, a dental assistant, reads stories to the younger kids, or asks the older ones about Little League.

The distractions are by design, of course, and often for the best. Today, the girl in the chair is chatting about school and can’t hear Dr. Dale Nickelsen’s ominous judgment, rendered from behind the reception desk. He holds a sheet of X-ray film up to the fluorescent view box, squints at it and mutters something no dental patient of any age wants to hear: “Oh boy, that’s a biggie! A monster cavity!”
Soon he’s at the girl’s side, and after a moment of small talk, he casually slips the word “cavity” into the conversation. At first, the patient shakes her head anxiously but then she stops, overwhelmed by the steady stream of chatter from Nickelsen ’60 dent, dds ’62, ms ’69 dent, who is talking about school and her friends again, and she’s trying to keep up. When he returns to the subject at hand, saying, “We’ll just get this taken care of so you’re not up in the middle of the night saying, ‘My tooth is bugging me,’” she barely protests.

This is a critical moment, because Rios has grabbed a syringe full of anesthetic and holds it low and out of sight while Nickelsen chatters away. Perhaps sensing something, the patient stiffens. “That’s your scrunch face?” he asks her breezily, as Rios slips him the syringe and then gently holds down the girl’s arms. The patient barely reacts—there isn’t time, really—as the doctor raises the needle barely into view and completes the injection in no more time than he needs to say, “Let’s get this put to sleep.”

It isn’t 10 minutes later that Nickelsen has completed the whole procedure, humming or maintaining a gentle, one-way conversation all the while. There’s a “WHOOSH” as the electric train passes overhead, and the dentist’s voice is so soft and low that it’s drowned out for that moment. As the train disappears into the next room, you can hear him again, telling the girl, “That’s just perfect!”

Dale Nickelsen, 72, has been caring for the oral health needs of children for nearly 50 years, including 35 in this very office in Elgin about an hour from Chicago. He and his longtime partner, Dr. Harry Channon, dds ’63, had a thriving pediatric dentistry practice here for decades, and now, even though Channon has retired, Nickelsen continues.

“I enjoy going to work every day; I enjoy seeing the kids,” says Nickelsen. “Most of them know I’ve provided a service they need, and they appreciate it. And that’s not even the point—the point is knowing they get the care they need.”

Still, considering that most kids don’t list trips to the dentist among their favorite activities, Nickelsen’s reputation among his patients is extraordinary. How’s this for a sign of his status as an ambassador for pediatric dentistry: his practice includes several three-generation families. Nickelsen has treated the grandparents and parents of his current patients. (This turns into a tidy generational routine, as he tells a parent or grandparent, ‘Remember how I sent you to the orthodontist? Guess whose turn it is now?!’)

Dr. Dale Nickelsen’s reputation among his patients is extraordinary; his practice includes several three-generational families.

Dr. Dale Nickelsen’s reputation among his patients is extraordinary; his practice includes several three-generational families.

The clinician of clinicians
When Nickelsen launched Pediatric Dentistry Ltd. in 1965, it was the only pediatric dentistry office in the Elgin area, and he and Channon were on call 24-hours-a-day. Early on, Nickelsen also began treating needy children from three charitable organizations in the area. That he managed to volunteer his time to those groups while also serving for decades as a Naval reservist and a UIC faculty member testifies not only to an extraordinary commitment to service, but also a prodigious work ethic and pace.

Channon says his former partner’s secret is speed. “He sees what needs to be done and does it right away; it’s something I’ve always admired, because I’m kind of slow,” says Channon. “He’s always had that capability [to work quickly], which is really beneficial when you work with kids, because it [reduces] their chair time. The faster you work, the better, so long as you’re doing an excellent job—and, of course, his work is exceptional.”

Indeed, Nickelsen’s UIC faculty role has focused largely on transmitting his knowledge about how to run a practice. He’s encountered every conceivable issue—medical issues, sure, but all the other stuff as well, from how to deal with difficult kids and challenging parents, to marketing, billing, hiring staff and even the finer points of how to keep an electric train running. Through his teaching at UIC, he has shared his knowledge with a generation of dentists.

“He’s the clinician of clinicians,” says Dr. Indru Punwani, head of pediatric dentistry at UIC. Punwani worked for a time at Nickelsen’s practice, and they also worked together during Nickelsen’s 28 years on the UIC dentistry faculty (including a three-year “interim” stint as assistant dean for clinical affairs in the 1980s). “He is [very] good at running a practice and building trust,” Punwani says. “He excels at coming down to the level of the children he treats, and building relationships with them.”

After Nickelsen completed his DDS, he and his wife Caren left for Adak, Alaska, a remote outpost near Kodiak, where Nickelsen would serve three years at a Naval air station, providing dental care to service personnel and children alike. He also learned how to repair his own equipment because, well, technicians weren’t readily available in Adak. Nickelsen stayed active in the Naval Reserves until 1985, eventually reaching the rank of captain, but in 1965, with their first child in tow, the family moved to Elgin.

It was a return home in one sense, because Nickelsen grew up in the area (first in Chicago’s Edison Park neighborhood, then in suburban Arlington Heights); Caren is from Prospect Heights. But the Nickelsens didn’t choose Elgin just because of family ties, either. Elgin appealed to them because it offered a complete, diverse urban ecosystem—one in need of pediatric dentistry.

So when Nickelsen set up shop, he took on all the community’s children—rich and poor, healthy and sick. In addition to his regular patients, he treats children from the Well Child Center, an Elgin group devoted to promoting healthfulness among at-risk populations. (In 2001, he gave some dental equipment to the Center, which had a closet-like space where he established an on-site dental office. The room was named in his honor.) He also donates time to children from Little Angels, an Elgin charity that provides treatment to severely disabled kids who cannot move or speak and require complete, round-the-clock care. And he sees children from the Larkin Center, a home for those with behavioral disorders.

Nickelsen didn’t originally intend for the Larkin Center work to be pro bono; the State of Illinois is technically the client, and is supposed to reimburse the cost. But the billing process was so unreliable and tedious that Nickelsen eventually talked Channon into the two of them doing the work for free. That decision was all the more momentous considering the other challenges of working with Larkin Center children: their behavior fluctuates wildly, so they can be quite difficult to treat; they run away so often that their no-show rate at the dentist’s office is about 50 percent.

But Nickelsen is committed to them, and in their own way, they acknowledge that commitment and reciprocate. The girl with the cavity came from Larkin Center, and her positive experience is hardly unique among the center’s residents.

“We have kids that say, ‘If I’d remembered I had a dentist appointment, I wouldn’t have run away today,’” says Anita Williams, a nurse who has been sending children to Nickelsen throughout her 16 years at Larkin Center. “He treats every child like they’re the most important person in the world to him, and in the moment he’s treating them, that’s very real for both of them.”

Erica Rios, Nickelsen’s dental assistant for nearly 11 years, prepares for the next patient. The toy 1 and numerous pieces of art help entertain his young patients as he performs his work.

Erica Rios, Nickelsen’s dental assistant for nearly 11 years, prepares for the next patient. The toy 1 and numerous pieces of art help entertain his young patients as he performs his work.

A demonstration of commitment
“Open really wide; I don’t want you to bite my fingers,” Nickelsen instructs an 11-year-old boy who is in for a checkup. “That would make me nervous, and trust me, you don’t want a nervous dentist.”

Of course, it’s the patient who is nervous, and who soon asks if Nickelsen is planning to remove his teeth. “No sir,” Nickelsen replies. “Your teeth look fine.”

The exchange captures the essence of Nickelsen’s chairside manner: warm and friendly, but fully in control. That’s also his leadership style. One day, years ago, he suggested to his partner, Channon, that he ought to start teaching at UIC’s College of Dentistry. It wasn’t something that Channon had really considered beforehand, but he did it anyway. The two of them began driving into the city for class every Tuesday, and Nickelsen was proven right: Channon loved the work, even if he wasn’t exactly sure how he’d decided to come along. Nickelsen “just has this ability to get you to do things,” according to Channon.

It was the same for Nicola Hill-Cordell ’87 dent, dds ’89, a former student of Nickelsen who worked at a Rolling Meadows-based satellite office of the Nickelsen-Channon practice after she completed her postgraduate training. In 1992, she bought that practice—under Nickelsen’s strict orders.

“My idea had been to work for them for a couple of years,” she recalls. “But Nickelsen said, ‘No, this is what’s best for you.’ And he was right.” She still runs that practice, now called ABC Dentistry.

Given that decisiveness, Nickelsen’s longtime friend and the head of pediatric dentistry at UIC, Punwani, should have expected a swift, decisive response when he took Nickelsen to lunch last year to ask for fundraising help to develop a new clinic on campus. Punwani had barely started his spiel when Nickelsen said, “Tell me what you need, and you’ve got it.”

UIC is still raising funds for the cause, but it now has its anchor gift as well as a name for the clinic: The Dr. Dale and Mrs. Caren Nickelsen Dept. of Pediatric Dentistry Postgraduate Clinic. Nickelsen’s snap decision to contribute wasn’t made because he has a vast fortune at his disposal; it was made because the clinic, and what it represents, is special to him.

“This is very personal,” Nickelsen says of the gift. “Other people may donate far more money to various causes, but I doubt in many instances that it’s as significant a part of their worth.”

For some donors, a building named in their honor can seem to cement their legacy. But in Dale Nickelsen’s case, the Nickelsen Clinic serves more as a demonstration of his commitment to dental students and pediatric patients alike. This is Dr. Nickelsen, after all, someone whose pride in a job well done is tied, not to accolades, but to an unshakeable sense that he’s provided a service of great value.

Of course, his job has other rewards as well. For example, once Nickelsen has convinced the 11-year-old boy that he isn’t planning to pull all of his teeth, the boy asks about one tooth in particular that’s a little loose. “Yes,” Nickelsen tells him. “It means you’re growing up.”

And the boy does something that validates the dentist’s handiwork on several levels: he flashes a perfect smile.

As this issue went to press, Dr. Nickelsen announced he was retiring in June.

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