WHEN THE WORLD HOWLED LAST YEAR AFTER A DENTIST SHOT A PROTECTED LION, HE JOINED AN INFAMOUS ROSTER OF PEOPLE WHO HAVE REPRESENTED OUR FIELD IN EXACTLY THE WRONG WAY.
BY ABIGAIL RONCK
DR. WALTER PALMER had an exotic hobby he liked to pursue when he wasn’t practicing dentistry: big-game hunting. Unusual? Sure. Expensive? Without question. What Palmer’s pursuit of his passion led to last summer, however, he could scarcely have imagined.
On a visit to Zimbabwe last July, the 55-year-old owner of River Bluff Dental in Bloomington, Minnesota, killed a 13-year-old lion named Cecil. (You perhaps heard about this at the time.) Palmer has maintained that the hunt — in which he and his guides lured the cat outside his home in Hwange National Park and shot him with a compound bow —was legal; Palmer returned the next day to finish the job, stalking the wounded animal with what the authorities said was a rifle. (He claims it was another bow.)
What officially caused Cecil’s transfor-mation to an ex-lion, of course, is a matter of semantics — dead is dead, after all. What followed, though, was an object lesson in modern shaming culture. Cecil, it turned out, had long endeared himself to the locals in Zimbabwe and had been a subject of study by Oxford University since 1999. Overnight, Palmer became globally infamous, the most despised man in the world. Newspaper editorials blasted him. The always even-tempered People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals petitioned that he be “extradited, charged and preferably hanged.” Yelp commenters mocked him, posting fake reviews of his practice: “Weird visit. Some guy lured me into the dental chair by waving beef jerky at me.” For several weeks, Palmer went into hiding. The statement he eventually released is unlikely to be taught in future crisis-control seminars: “If I’d have known this lion had a name and was that important to the country, or a study,” he told the Associated Press, “obviously I wouldn’t have taken it.”
In many ways, what was surprising about the outcry wasn’t its viciousness; venom is social media’s lifeblood, after all. What was startling was that so much of the calumny focused on what Palmer did for a living. Read any article from the time: It will invariably mention that Palmer is a dentist, and everyone familiar with the story (which is to say, everyone) can recount that fact. Would that be true were he a management consultant or CFO or bond trader? Don’t bet on it.
There are underlying reasons for that, and everyone in our profession ought to take note of them. As we all know, studies show that a majority of Americans experience some anxiety during a dental appointment. “There are very few circumstances as vulnerability-inducing as going to the dentist,” says Dr. Benjamin Yudkoff, an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a psychiatrist at Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital (and whose mother is a dentist). “You’re lying on your back in a completely undefended and submissive position. To make matters worse, you open up a sensitive orifice where pain and touch receptors are in very high concentration, and you’re allowing someone to act on a part of the body which is totally blind to you.”
Palmer’s vocation therefore played a direct role in riling up the public. “Our childhood is suffused with allegories about the immorality of killing or harming animals — think Bambi or Finding Nemo,” Dr. Yudkoff says. “There is something treacherous in having such little regard for a living creature or such high regard for one’s own power that one could overcome guilt or empathy and kill a thing for sport. This act is now cast through the magnifying lens of how dentists are regarded by so many: as sadistic.”
Some dentists aren’t buying it. “My profession being dragged through the mud in the media? I don’t let it affect me,” says Dr. Puja Mistry, who practices in Los Angeles. “[Palmer] could have been a lawyer, engineer or therapist. It wasn’t his career that led to that outcome.”
EVERYONE WHO KNOWS THE WALTER PALMER STORY KNOWS HE’S A DENTIST.
Dr. Barry Shaffer, a dentist from Encino, California, draws a bright line between his interactions with his patients and popular perception. “The relationship is one of a tremendous amount of gratitude on the patients’ end, respect and appreciation,” he says. “So there’s a disconnect between reality and what the media portrays.”
A second factor also comes into play, however: money. Although Palmer has denied reports that he paid $55,000 for the offending hunt, he won’t say if the actual figure is higher or lower. Unfortunately for him, he was already on record, in a 2009 New York Times article about elk hunting, as having paid $45,000 for a kill. (“I don’t have a golf game,” he said, justifying the expense.)
Millions of people surely asked: How could a dentist afford this extravagant hobby? Virtually every American has a relationship with a dentist. Almost none of them, however, know that, according to the American Dental Association, in 2013 the average net income for a private general practitioner was $180,950; specialists took home $283,900. That difference between public perception and dental reality helps explain why Palmer’s occupation was central to his story.
It also helps explain why, every few years, a dentist behaving badly finds himself caught up in a public controversy. We’ve rounded up a few of the true doozies — all of which offer highly instructive case studies underscoring the urgency for each of us always to be a worthy ambassador for our noble profession.
THE DRUG KINGPIN
IN 1984, THE FBI admitted it: At the helm of the largest cocaine enterprise in Philadelphia history was a floppy-haired 31-year-old dentist. Clients called him Dr. Dealer or Dr. Snow — nicknames Dr. Larry Lavin worked hard to earn. A Philips Exeter Academy and Ivy League graduate, Lavin, at the height of his operation, distributed the white stuff to 14 states, the District of Columbia and Canada, all from a modest dental practice on Philly’s Main Line.
He hadn’t started that way. As a student at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine in the mid-’70s, Lavin merely dipped his toe into the drug trade, peddling marijuana out of his fraternity house.
By the time he earned his dental license in 1981, Lavin had recruited a number of other young professionals into a full-bore white-collar drug cartel. His network included five other dentists, two lawyers, four stockbrokers, a few accountants, a state auditor and an pilot. They were known as the “Yuppie Conspiracy.”
Don’t be fooled by their seemingly modest mien, though: With beeper stems, scrambler phones and recording-detection devices, by the end this clerical cartel looked downright worthy of The Wire. In 1984, when the FBI seized Lavin’s practice and belongings, it requisitioned $20 million worth of cocaine, 15 cars, an airplane, a boat, four residences and $2.2 million in cash.
When agents arrived to arrest him, he had fled to Virginia Beach. There he lived under a false identity for 18 months before his cover was blown. In 1986, he pleaded guilty to operating a criminal enterprise, conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and tax evasion and was sentenced to 42 years in federal prison. Released in 2005, he has been the subject of two books and a National Geographic documentary. His Facebook profile lists him as the director of client services at One Touch Direct, a Tampa, Florida, marketing call center. He has 725 Facebook friends.
LAVIN HAD RECRUITED OTHER PROFESSIONALS INTO A FULL-BORE WHITE-COLLAR COCAINE CARTEL.
THE SENIOR SWINDLERS
DR. EDWARD BODEK of Encinitas, California, made headlines in 2013 when he and his wife, Mary (who was also his office manager), were convicted of overcharging patients’ credit cards to the tune of some $260,000. Patients expecting a $67 prophylaxis instead found themselves facing bills of up to $8,000.
In the tiny San Diego community where he had worked for nearly 30 years, Bodek specialized in treating an elderly population whom he visited at assisted-living centers and nursing homes. As such, the patients were extremely loyal to him, said Deputy District Attorney Anna Winn — fidelity mixed with a lapse in mental capacity the dentist was clearly banking on when he began to implement his credit scam in 2012.
That year, his patients began reporting unauthorized charges for dental services ranging from $2,000 to $10,000. (When they called Bodek’s office, they were told the charges were errors that would be corrected.) Twenty-two patients and more than 100 fraudulent transactions later, federal agents descended upon the Bodeks’ practice and apartment in nearby Carlsbad, where they found boxes and shopping bags full of luxurious goods. The couple was also renting 30 different storage units in which they had stowed women’s clothing, designer handbags and fur coats. Most of the items had their price tags still attached.
In August 2013, Bodek and his wife pleaded guilty to financial elder abuse and identity theft. Each was sentenced to a year in jail and five years’ probation.
THE BAD SEED
IN 1999, Dr. Alireza Asgari took over the practice of an older dentist in Hanover, Pennsylvania. Though he had earned his dental license just two months earlier, he came to town boasting rave patient reviews and immediately upgraded the office with the finest equipment. As it turned out, though, Asgari was more crooked than his patients’ teeth.
Some 113 people eventually filed complaints against him, one of whom had been in perfect oral health but was told by Asgari that she had five cavities and needed a root canal. After the procedures, tiny slivers that had chipped off from his dental file caused an infection; many of the woman’s fillings came out.
On another patient, Asgari allegedly performed multiple surgeries later deemed unnecessary, billing the insurance provider $43,650. One boy’s parents reportedly paid $3,750 for braces that were later evaluated as clinically worthless. Another woman underwent surgery for a fractured jaw — which was not fractured. In 2005, Asgari pleaded guilty to 42 felony and 37 misdemeanor counts of theft; he was sentenced to up to five years in prison.
SOME 113 PEOPLE EVENTUALLY FILED COMPLAINTS AGAINST ASGARI, ONE OF WHOM HAD BEEN IN PERFECT ORAL HEALTH
BUT WAS TOLD BY ASGARI THAT SHE HAD FIVE CAVITIES AND NEEDED A ROOT CANAL. SHE LATER CONTRACTED AN INFECTION, AND MANY OF HER FILLINGS CAME OUT.
SO MUCH MALFEASANCE! It’s all a little depressing — so we’d be remiss not to end on a lighter note, with a look at some memorably eeeevil movie dentists. No less an eminence than Steve Martin has made something of a side gig of playing shady dentists. In the 1986 adaptation of the rock musical Little Shop of Horrors, he brought to life Dr. Orin Scrivello, a sociopath who butchered patients’ teeth before anesthesia set in and wore a mask that delivered him a steady flow of nitrous oxide. (He ended up reaping what he sowed, dying of self-asphyxiation before being fed to a carnivorous plant. Ah, the magic of Hollywood!)
Fifteen years later, Martin starred as Dr. Frank Sangster in the black comedy Novocaine. Although he’s (slightly) more low-key than Scrivello, Sangster is a drug-peddling pushover who, when framed for a murder, swaps all of his teeth with his late brother’s, thereby exonerating himself with false dental records.
A number of other movies and TV shows have depicted dentists as uptight and charmless. Tim Burton’s 2005 remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory introduces Willy Wonka’s father as an overbearing ascetic who calls lollipops “cavities on a stick.” All three Hangover films feature Ed Helms’s Dr. Stuart Price as a henpecked loser.
Finally, who can forget the 1997 “Yada Yada” episode of Seinfeld, in which Kramer deems Jerry an “anti-dentite” when he complains about having offended his overly sensitive dentist. “You’re one of those,” Kramer admonishes. “Next thing you know, you’ll be saying they should have their own schools.” Replies Jerry: “They do have their own schools!” Can’t catch a break, can we?
ABIGAIL RONCK is a regular contributor to Incisal Edge. She last wrote for the magazine about the decline of the dental trade show.