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Don't be Afraid

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Dr. Tom Helvey is a gentle dentist

He’s 37 years old, but Tom Helvey has a boyish face that has new patients giving a double-take, and asking his office workers in an anxious whisper whether he’s just an intern. He takes it in stride, and the smile on his face only hints at the years of experience that hide underneath his youthful facade.

Born and raised in Michigan, Helvey attended Michigan State University, where he earned his graduate degree, and then University of Michigan’s dental school for his dental degree. While there, he spent a summer working in Yellowstone National Park – the summer of 1988, when the park was ravaged by wildfires more severe than any the area had ever seen before. That’s when Helvey fell in love with the western half of the United States, and decided then that’s where he one day wanted to live. “I like the mountains and I really like the people out west,” he explained. “I knew this is where I wanted to be.”

The work came first, however, and after graduation from dental school, Helvey followed a career path taken only by a few – into the world of public health. “I went to work in the Four Corners area of New Mexico,” he said. “I was a commissioned officer for the Public Health Service, and worked on the Navajo reservation for three years,” where they did, “some really hard core pediatric dentistry.” From New Mexico, Helvey went to Bridgeport, Connecticut, in order to experience inner city public health work, and then moved to Spokane. “I wanted to explore the world,” he said of his travels. “I wanted to see what was out there.” He also wanted to serve in a useful capacity, and he saw public health as a way to do that. “It’s all about helping people,” he said. “Meeting and talking and interacting, and helping people live healthier lives.”

That work helped to shape the dentist he is today – a man who believes no one should be afraid of going to the dentist. “My average daily client doesn’t want to see me,” he explains. “It doesn’t have to be that way.”

Helvey, known as the dentist with “gentle hands,” says dental techniques have advanced so greatly in the last two decades that much of today’s dentistry is now done in a way that it’s much more comfortable than in the past. His greatest strength, however, is the one he says isn’t taught well in dental school – bedside manner. “A lot of it is attitude,” he said. “We need a reality check here, and the reality is, most of what we do in dentistry is discretionary, not mandatory. Dentistry is a luxury. We’re not saving lives, but we can enhance lives and help people to live with health, comfort and confidence. But it’s ultimately the individual who has to decide how and what they want to invest in this. We’re only talking about teeth, and we have to deal with that on a more human basis.”

Talking. When you get past the youthful looks and the gentle hands, that’s a quality that stands out in Dr. Tom Helvey, the dentist. He talks with his patients – not to his patients, but with. “Something I’m doing with people is sitting down before new exams to find out what a person’s long-term dental goals are. And what I’m finding out (from my patients) is that nobody’s even asked them about that before. But everybody’s different. Some people want more work than others; some want less.”     More dental work? “Sure,” Helvey says. “You find out that some people really don’t like their smile, and want to do something to improve it. Some people don’t like their old, dark fillings and are happy to replace them with the new composites that aren’t so obvious. What’s the harm in asking?” he questioned.

American patients are slowly learning to work more in partnership with their doctors, taking an active role in their wellness, and in their treatment. And that’s a practice Dr. Helvey hopes to encourage in dentistry, as well. “We can figure this out together,” he said. “I mean, nobody’s kidding anybody here. We know (dentistry) is expensive, especially if you want quality work. And we can do some creative things, but it depends on your perspective. My job is not just to diagnose, but to inform the patient about all the options – what I think is the best way to give the best health and the longest lasting work. We break it all down and really communicate.”

Helvey came to Sandpoint a year and a half ago, a place he says is “Nirvana,” because of the people, the cosmopolitan atmosphere and, best of all, the ski mountain. He operated a small office near downtown Sandpoint, but recently purchased Bill Osmunson’s dental practice next to the Elk’s Club golf course on Highway 200. He’s appreciative of the cutting edge technology available in the office – low-radiation, instant digital x-rays, low noise electric hand pieces, air abrasion ‘drill-less’ technology, high tech bonded resins and ceramics for long-lasting and attractive fillings. But all of that, he says, is secondary. “Those are just gadgets. And gadgets are just the beginning for good dentistry. Our strength is that we can offer some of the highest-quality and most up-to-date techniques in dentistry today. All of the staff is trained that way,” he added. “It’s not just me.”

And the greatest technique, of course, is talking. “I don’t compromise on quality,” he said. “We, at this office, are about taking time, spending time with people in order to do what’s right. There is a choice,” he added. “In the end, it’s just teeth. And it’s up to the patient to decide what he or she wants to do with them.”


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Landon Otis

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