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“Open big like an alligator for me,” Dr. Gayathri Raju says to 5-year-old Loralai Webb during her dental visit Thursday morning, followed momentarily by, “Bring your teeth together like you’re biting down on a sandwich.”
Moving over to 5-year-old Kingston Brewton for his checkup, she concludes that he has “no sugar bugs,” or cavities.
“A sugar bugs?” he questions.
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“Sugar bugs cause cavities, right?” Raju tells him.
“What’s sugar bugs?” he asks again.
“The bugs that cause you cavities! Those are sugar bugs,” she explains.
For a moment, Kingston seems to understand, before asking one more time: “Sugar bugs?”
Raju, who is accustomed to communicating with children, laughs. Having just opened her practice, Pediatric Dentistry of Ocala on State Road 200, she has capacity to see dozens of children daily and pursue her passion while helping fill a need in the community.
“I’m a small business owner,” she said. “It’s a startup. Pure passion and hard work and grit and determination is what it is.”
Cleanings, fillings and more geared toward kids
The office, which opened to patients in February but won’t have a grand opening until early summer, offers a variety of dental services for children, and employees are trained in special techniques for younger visitors.
Raju, who received her Doctor of Medicine in Dentistry (DMD) degree from the University of Florida and Pediatric Dentistry Certificate from UF, Naples, provides cleanings, fillings, extractions, emergency services and minimally invasive dentistry techniques as an alternative to sedation when necessary.
Many of the office’s elements and practices are geared toward kids, including an open bay with a TV so kids are less confined for cleanings, and wireless tools when possible.
“We have our cordless prophy jets. It’s basically to eliminate all the wires and all of the contraptions associated with dental cleaning, so for kids, that translates to if they have an electric toothbrush at home, so the amount of anxiety is definitely getting reduced,” she said.
Although there are stationary X-ray machines, another high-tech feature is a handheld X-ray machine that dental assistants can bring to the patient. She’s also eliminated the harsh down lights over the chairs in exchange for lights on the assistants’ loupes, or glasses.
Starting good habits early on
Two of the favorites of parents so far are a “mommy and me” style bathroom with a kids-sized toilet, and the ability for parents to observe their children’s visits.
“The huge thing is parents are allowed in the back at my practice,” Raju said. “I was trained like that. I would never think of not having the parent when I’m doing a procedure at the time just because they need to know how their child is responding.”
Her main goal is education, and she was drawn to pediatric dentistry in an effort to instill good habits in children early on rather than change them in adults.
“If I can get them on a path to think about their oral health as something that is routinely done, and it’s part of the parcel of life and dealing with health, then to inculcate those habits early on in life is just huge,” she said.
Her youngest patient so far has been 4 months old, and the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends visits by a child’s first birthday.
The office also has a special infant room for ages 2 and younger and a comfortable chair for the parent to hold the child during the checkup. It doubles as a recovery room after sedation.
“We don’t use words like ‘shot,’ ‘injections,’ all of that,” Raju said. “We say ‘sleepy juice’ and ‘mosquito bites’ and things like that, and it works with distraction with kids.”
Fulfilling the need for pediatric dentists in Ocala
Raju also has additional training to care for children with special needs, who she says are “close to her heart,” especially those with autism or ADHD.
“We see a lot of sensory processing disorder in young children. They don’t like light. They don’t like sedation, and working with them is definitely a challenge, but it is important that they do get dental care,” she said.
There is a separate quiet room secluded from the others for those who need it, and advanced minimally invasive techniques can replace sedation when appropriate.
While there are many general and family dentists in Ocala, there is only one other dentist specializing solely in pediatric care, so Raju sees her office as filling a big need in the southwest area of Ocala and beyond.
“When we did the initial demographics study, there were about 10 to 11 schools around this area,” she said. “This is the part of the town that is growing – a lot of young, new families coming in.”
The Pediatric Dentistry of Ocala accepts various insurance plans, or there is an alternate membership program for a flat rate annually that covers two cleanings and offers emergency services and 10% off the usual fee for any additional procedures.
Pursuing the American Dream
Raju previously worked with a corporate dentistry for two years but wanted to run her own practice and have more face-to-face time with parents.
“We want to have those long-term relationships, and we want to grow with your family as your kids are growing, and that is not technically plausible in the corporate world,” she said.
Whereas she was seeing around five patients every 20 to 30 minutes before, she now dedicates an hour to four patients at a time and talks to each parent individually about treatment plans.
She’s also becoming more integrated in the community. For every new patient, the Pediatric Dentistry of Ocala donates one week’s worth of meals to Food 4 Kids to help local children in need.
Moving to Ocala and establishing her new office is checking other boxes for Raju as well.
“I am an immigrant. I came from India, so this is my American Dream and I’m working hard at it, and part of that dream is to do this and to have meaningful balance between professional and personal life,” she said.
The Pediatric Dentistry of Ocala is located at 5330 SW College Road Suite #1 in Ocala. It is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday and by appointment only on Friday. Visit pediatricdentistryofocala.com for more information.
Contact reporter Danielle Johnson at [email protected]