Giving a young woman her smile back

05/20/2010 12:00 AM |

Years of radiation treatment and medication destroyed Amanda Salerno’s teeth until Wading River dentist Jeffrey Fox donated a smile makeover recently. The doctor donated $25,000 worth of dental work to Ms. Salerno.

Medical assistant Amanda Salerno flashed a wide grin after her shift at the North Country Road Medical Complex ended Tuesday evening.

And she had every reason to. The bubbly 29-year-old was showing off her new smile — the result of extensive dental work required to repair her teeth, which were damaged by side effects of treatment for a benign pituitary gland tumor. Ms. Salerno came very close to never smiling again, but for Dr. Jeffrey Fox’s “Free Smile” program, a yearly event in which his office picks one candidate who requires extensive dental work they cannot afford.

“I feel like my old self again,” said Ms. Salerno, who lives with her husband, Michael, in North Shirley. “I feel like I have a fresh new start.”

Ms. Salerno traveled a long road before reaching the point where she could start over. Diagnosed with a benign pituitary tumor at age 22, she became very ill quickly and could not return to Suffolk Community College, where she’d been taking psychology classes. Over the past seven years, she said, she feels like she’s been on a roller coaster with rounds of surgeries and radiation and pain management treatments leaving her somewhat disabled. But the coin flipped when she began working three doors from Dr. Fox’s office in Wading River, Ms. Salerno explained.

“I think everything happens for a reason,” she said.

Sarah Fox, the dentist’s wife and business manager, said it’s been a tradition at the practice to give a free smile away at Christmas, but due to scheduling conflicts there wasn’t enough time last December. Ms. Fox first met Ms. Salerno when she came in as an emergency patient and helped review her treatment plan. Most dentists would have extracted her teeth and given her dentures, but Ms. Fox said she wasn’t about to let that happen.

“I went home and I just said to [Dr. Fox] that this needs to be our free smile,” Ms. Fox said. “It’s sad. A 28-year-old woman should not have teeth like that.”

Dr. Fox first began restoring smiles for free about 20 years ago as a way of giving back to community members who were about to lose their teeth because finances were standing in the way. Over the years, he said, he’s restored about 50 smiles — donating the time and lab fees — without any financial benefit to himself.

“I make it a special goal to try to get the word out around the holidays in December,” Dr. Fox said. “I’ll find a case here or there where I’ll feel some obligation to help. It’s kind of like my giveback to the community. It generates a lot of good will.”

Dr. Fox said he estimated Ms. Salerno required about $25,000 worth of dental work when she first came to him, noting that she could not smile because of the breakage and decay. It’s something that Ms. Salerno said destroyed her confidence, because she wondered if others ever judged her on her appearance.

“I’ve always kind of slipped in a sentence about why I had breakage,” Ms. Salerno said, covering her mouth with one hand. “I used to hide like this. I played it off really well.”

Dr. Fox found a way to bring Ms. Salerno out of her shell, but it wasn’t easy. For starters, she required six root canals, three tooth extractions and a bridge on the upper portion of her mouth. The permanent porcelain bridge was placed a few weeks ago, thus completing the upper portion of her smile. Dr. Fox said he’s in the process of working on the bottom teeth.

“It’s pretty dramatic,” he said.

Ms. Salerno recalled first looking in the mirror at the results with a glint of tears in her eyes.

“When Dr. Fox gave me the mirror to look at myself, I started to cry,” she said. “All of my emotions came out in my hand.”

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