Filling a need by filling teeth

Person of the Year: Dr. Dennis Loeffler
2011-01-01T00:00:00Z 2011-01-01T04:39:10Z Filling a need by filling teethBy TERRY RINDFLEISCH | trindfleisch@lacrossetribune La Crosse Tribune

If he didn't do it, who would? That's why Dennis Loeffler no longer is a retired dentist. He quietly has worked in his retirement years fixing the teeth of poor and underserved patients.

The 64-year-old La Crosse native set up a dental clinic in cooperation with the La Crosse County Health Department and the La Crosse District Dental Society in the Health Science Center, 1300 Badger St.

Loeffler has seen more than 5,000 patients and has done 5,000 to 6,000 fillings in three years as the only dentist and dental director of the nonprofit La Crosse Community Dental Clinic. In 2010 alone, the clinic logged 3,400 patient visits.

"Without him, hundreds of people would not have had dental care they needed," said Doug Mormann, director of the La Crosse County Health Department and a dental clinic board member.

Loeffler has prevented some patients from ending up in the ER, said Dr. Joe Kotnour, a La Crosse dentist and a clinic board member.

"Behind the scenes, Dr. Loeffler has provided an important, significant public service," Kotnour said.

For his dedication and work with the needy and underserved, Loeffler is the La Crosse Tribune's 2010 Person of the Year.

Loeffler said he was honored by the award, which he added also should go to his staff - dental assistant Cheryl Silha, dental hygienists Jessica Erickson and Karina Boyea and his wife, Marcia, the office administrator.

"Our real reward is doing a good job," Loeffler said.

Loeffler provides dental care to those who have nowhere else to go. Private dentists can only take so many patients on Medicaid or BadgerCare due to low government reimbursement; the rest have to search for a dentist.

He doesn't choose his patients, they choose him. If they meet the guidelines, he sees them.

Some of Loeffler's patients appreciate the dental care; others don't, and may even expect it as part of their Medicaid benefits.

Loeffler doesn't consider gratitude a requirement.

"I don't judge the patient - we fix teeth," Loeffler said. "I think about my community, and that every patient deserves great care. It ruins your work if you judge people.

"I'm here to fill a need," he said. "I enjoy what I do, and we do it well."

Kotnour, who does some root canals on Loeffler's patients, said Loeffler has organized a state-of-the-art dental practice with digital X-ray technology.

"He is very efficient and has created a business model there," Kotnour said. "He could be sailing or retired, but helps these people from his heart."

Loeffler plans to retire again, and the clinic is looking for his replacement. That could come next summer, or perhaps a year from now.

"He wants to hang around to mentor someone," Kotnour said. "He doesn't want to leave this population up in the air. This clinic is his baby. He doesn't want it to fail."

Loeffler, a 1964 Logan High School graduate, received an undergraduate degree in math at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and was a UW graduate student in math doing zoology research when he applied for dental school.

"My roommate always wanted to be a dentist, and we applied together," Loeffler said. "I was accepted and he wasn't.

"Being a dentist was something to do with your life," he said. "I have fun at whatever I'm doing. But I worked at dentistry pretty hard."

He had a one-year dental residency at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Milwaukee, then set up private practice in Bettendorf, Iowa. He remained there for 30 years before retiring in 2002 and moving back to La Crosse.

"I was plugging away at reading the great books of the western world," Loeffler said. "But I was concerned about being alone and I need to be around people, so I figured I would volunteer at the hospital or something.

"In retirement, you either get involved or you sit and rust," he said.

Loeffler ran into Silha, who recruited him to work for Scenic Bluffs Community Health Center in Cashton. He was dental director at Scenic Bluffs from 2003 to 2006, with Silha his dental assistant.

Loeffler again retired when the Scenic Bluffs site in La Crosse closed in 2006, but he was recruited in fall 2007 to head the community dental clinic in La Crosse.

"It's very fulfilling work," Silha said. "You're helping the community and filling a void."

Marcia Loeffler said her husband is dedicated and knowledgeable and has the best support staff.

"Dennis has chosen to do this in retirement as an opportunity to give back to the community and enjoys what he does very much," she said.

Loeffler and his staff are not volunteers - they get a salary from the nonprofit corporation operated by a community board.

"We run it like any dental office," Loeffler said.

The clinic's dental care is limited to prevention, exams, X-rays, pulling teeth, fillings and partial dentures. It has no waiting list; patients are taken when appointments become available.

"It was a hard transition from private practice to public health," Loeffler said. "There are limits on what you can do and what will work for the patient.

"It's nuts-and-bolts dentistry, and not about establishing close relationships with patients," he said. "We play where the ball lies and we move on. We have a treatment plan and it runs very well."

Loeffler said he strives to fix dental problems in four visits. He has pulled multiple teeth in patients and has filled 20 or more teeth in some patients.

"In four to six weeks, a patient can have their teeth fixed," he said.

The clinic offers a one-year follow-up exam with teeth cleaning. And every patient goes home with a toothbrush. "Some people can't even afford a toothbrush," Loeffler said.

Loeffler never sought publicity for the clinic or himself. He sees it as a mission and a joy.

"It's a ball," Loeffler said. "You feel useful and often appreciated. We try to make it fun - people are happy here and we work hard."

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