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Space Age Dentistry : Youngsters Are So Thrilled by High-Tech Office, They Hate to Leave


Three children in the waiting room at a dentist's office in Oxnard are playing at the controls of a mock spaceship, while another watches cartoons on a giant video screen.

Above the front desk is a large neon "Pre-Flight Check-in" sign. On one wall, another flashing sign proclaims "A big plaque attacker hello to our new passengers."

This is one of three offices run by a trio of dentists in Oxnard, Camarillo and Simi Valley who have taken children's dentistry into the Space Age.

Dentists Mark Lisagor, Barry Cantor and Suzanne Berger, who run the Children's Dental Group in Ventura County, are known simply as "the space dentists" by many of their young patients.

Not only are their front offices designed in a space decor--complete with a robot in the Simi Valley office--but the dentists do their drilling and filling in an equally high-tech atmosphere.

There are television consoles above every dental chair with remote control switches for the children to use and Nintendo games for them to play with while recovering.

Even when some painful work is about to begin, the space play continues. When nitrous oxygen masks are placed on the children's faces, the children pretend to be space pilots.

The results over the last 12 years, according to Lisagor, Cantor and Berger, are best measured by a phenomenon rarely imagined in connection with a trip to the dentist.

"What we get over and over is the child who starts to cry when it is time to go," Berger said this week. "They don't want to go home. They want to stay and play. We see it happen several times every month."

The idea for a spaceship theme for the dental offices came in 1978 after Lisagor and Cantor had merged their competing offices into what was then a two-man partnership.

"We decided to create a conversation piece," Lisagor said. "Traditionally there were some dental offices with Mickey Mouse or cowboy themes, but we hadn't seen anything in the spaceship line.

"The thing that decided it for us was a trip to Space Mountain at Disneyland with our own kids," Lisagor added. "We decided that the high-tech look fit in better with the dental environment and wouldn't offend the sensibilities of some of our older patients."

Almost immediately after their offices were renovated, Lisagor and Cantor noticed an increase in business, with some patients coming from as far away as Santa Barbara and even Palm Springs.

Their offices were featured in national magazines and on national television, and Lisagor said he is aware of half a dozen other dentists who have copied the spaceship look for their own offices.

The most important result of the design change, however, was the fact that children seemed less afraid than in a conventional dentist's office.

"The fact is that we have children here for whom this environment makes the difference between fear and wanting to come see the dentist," Lisagor said. "The most common occurrence we have is when Mom is ready to leave and the kids don't want to go."

While their offices may be a bit unusual, the problems faced by the three dentists--Berger joined the partnership in 1984--are the same encountered by the dozen or so other pediatric dentists practicing in Ventura County.

One of the most persistent problems, Cantor said, is the sometimes devastating decay caused in young children who are allowed to go to sleep with a bottle of milk at night after their baby teeth have arrived.

"It's called 'baby bottle tooth decay,' " Cantor said. "It can occur from bottle feeding or nursing. It's because parents put their kids to bed with a bottle and don't brush their teeth.

"They will change their diapers, but forget to bathe another part of the body--the mouth," he added. "I would say the number of children we see averages 10% of our new patients every month. It goes from severely decayed teeth to moderate decay. The message to parents is that they should not give their children a bottle of milk at night after the first year."

In addition to their shared enthusiasm for outer space, both Lisagor and Cantor happened to be left-handed. With their equipment all set up for left-handed dentists, they decided they needed another lefty in 1984 when they expanded.

Not only was Berger left-handed, she had her own secret plans to open a dentist office on a spaceship theme.

"When I saw their office I was just amazed," she said. "It seemed like the facts were ganging up against me and there was no point fighting it, so I came on board."

All three dentists have been active as officers of the California Society of Pediatric Dentists since joining forces and Lisagor is a past president of the American Society of Dentistry for Children in Southern California.

Lisagor said their basic message to children is the same as that of almost every other child's dentist--brush regularly, floss after meals and stay away from unhealthy foods.

He and his partners have had more than 30,000 patients in the last decade, ranging in age from 6 months to 18 years. But most are between the ages of 2 and 8.

"Our attitude is that it's never too early to see the dentist," Lisagor said. "A child should be seen at about a year. The reason is to catch a new parent and remove the errors in the golf swing before they cause any harm."

Lisagor believes that a trip to the dentist's office can be fun without creating a false impression that there are no repercussions for poor dental hygiene.

"We do have some critics who think this is too much of an escape from reality, and there is some truth to that," he said. "Children do need to be exposed to reality in a dentist's office.

"But children need to be successes too," he said. "Everything we do here is designed to help them succeed in taking care of their teeth."

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