Gary Smiley spent three decades as an orthodontist in South Carolina, so you might think he’s seen enough bicuspids to last a lifetime.
But in recent years, as a volunteer with Healthy Smiles of Spartanburg, he has continued to peer and probe—into 4,446 mouths and counting. Smiley sometimes screens as many as 300 children in a single afternoon.
In most cases, after “Open wide,” he sees tidy rows of sturdy young teeth, ready for a life of munching. More often than you might expect, he finds painful problems.
More than half of children younger than 8 in South Carolina experience tooth decay, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. Long-term complications can be prevented if problems are caught early enough. But untreated childhood decay can lead to serious health problems, not to mention missed school days and fragile self-esteem.
Healthy Smiles of Spartanburg offers school-based screenings to help identify children who need dental care. The organization did 14,080 screenings in a recent year, and they expect that number to rise. The Duke Endowment supports the program through a grant to the Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System Foundation.
Dr. Smiley, a proud grandfather of eight, started volunteering with Healthy Smiles two years ago. A native of Spartanburg, he always loved working with his hands and wanted to be part of a helping profession, which led him to dentistry. He studied at UNC Chapel Hill, staying on for 10 years to teach orthodontics and conduct research. He was acting director of the UNC Regional Dental Research Center and acting associate dean for research before he returned home to enter private practice.
In 2005, his son took over his practice and Smiley found time on his hands. A colleague told him about Healthy Smiles; now he rarely turns down a chance to help.
“I see some of the problems these kids have, and I wonder how they eat and sleep,” Smiley says. “They’ve got to be in throbbing pain. I ask a lot of them ‘Does it hurt?’ and some will say ‘No’ because they’re afraid.”
On a recent afternoon, 16 summer campers wait for Smiley at an elementary school screening in rural Duncan, S.C. First in line is 6-year-old Will, who snaps open his mouth like a hungry crocodile. Smiley flicks on a bright flashlight for a close-up.
“That’s a mouthful of teeth you have,” he says.
One by one, the next campers step up, eager to show their incisors. “Let’s take a look,” Smiley tells them. “Good, very good.” “Keep up the excellent work.” Whenever he can, he offers tips about good brushing.
Every so often, a lollipop-stained tongue will surprise him, or teeth that just chomped on Cheetos.
Smiley volunteers because he wants to do something for a community that was good to him. He calls it his “payback to society.”
Most of all, he wants to help kids feel better.
“All children,” he says, “deserve to smile.”
Lin B. Hollowell III
Director of Health Care