Retired Bellingham dentist organized care for low-income residents

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJanuary 17, 2011 

CURT SMITH BELLINGHAM DENTIST

Dr. Curt Smith is a retired dentist who spends one day a week providing dental care for Dept. of Social and Health Services adults and people who are uninsured. "I spent 45 years in private practice," said Smith, who retired in 2005. "These people need help and I can do it."

KATIE BARNES — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

Retired dentist Curt Smith says brushing and flossing go a long way toward helping seniors keep their teeth into old age. Still, much of a person's later dental health reflects their actions earlier in life.

Age: 75.

Residence: Bellingham, born and raised.

Occupation: Retired dentist, organizer of low-income dental health programs through SeaMar and Interfaith health centers.

Years spent as a practicing dentist: 45.

Where he worked: The Bellingham National Bank building at Holly Street and Cornwall Avenue, for 35 years. In 1995, he moved his practice to the Bellingham Dental Center, near the U.S. Post Office, until he retired in 2005.

Brushing matters: "If they've spent their whole lives not taking care of their teeth, they may very well end up with unresolved problems," Smith says. "The more complicated the problems, the more expensive they are to fix."

Helping those less fortunate: Smith helped establish the Donated Adult Dental Services program through the Interfaith Community Health Center in 2006. About 30 dentists and dental hygienists donate their time to do dental work for low-income adults.

The agency charges on a sliding scale. The program sees up to 250 patients a year and has provided close to $50,000 worth of dental work for free.

Prevention matters: Smith says preventative dental work keeps small problems like a minor cavity or gingivitis from turning into larger, more expensive issues.

"So many people wait until it gets unbearable and go to the emergency room, and the ER gives them antibiotics or painkillers and sends them on their way," he says. "Then, two weeks later, they're back again."

Times have changed: Smith says he can't believe how far dental technology has come since he began in the business in the mid '60s. When taking X-rays, dentists didn't shield patients and used machines that scanned for five seconds, something that wouldn't fly these days. High-speed drills, now a common tool, had just been invented when Smith graduated.

"It was a different job then," Smith says. "You had to do the job with the equipment you had, so it was more technically demanding."

Working on kids: "The thing that helped me most is when I had children of my own," Smith says. "With younger kids you try to bring them in and start them with benign procedures; you try to make dentistry a pleasurable experience."

Fluoride battle: Smith was a co-chair of the failed attempt in 2005 to add fluoride to Bellingham's drinking water. The issue sparked an intense political battle between proponents who highlighted the public health benefits of getting fluoride onto the teeth of poor children, versus people concerned about the health effects of fluoridated water.

Smith calls it "one of the most frustrating things I've ever been involved with," and says he's had his fill of controversial campaigns.

"I don't plan on attempting anything like that again," he says. "Life's too short."

Bellingham over the years: Smith has seen businesses grow downtown, move to Bellis Fair, and gradually migrate back to a revitalized downtown.

"All the economic activity has moved down to Railroad (Avenue)," he says. "It's been interesting to watch the changes."

No place like home: Watching Bellingham change over the years has done little to change Smith's love for his lifelong home.

"Everybody wants progress but no one wants change," he says. "It's still a great place to live."

In his spare time: "It started as a joke," Smith says of his decades-long study of Bellingham's history of prostitution.

Smith and a friend, Mike Vouri, heard a Rotary Club presentation about the area's history and realized how little was said about the oldest profession in the world, even though the practice was a reality in the rough-and-tumble early years of Fairhaven and Whatcom, the two bayside burgs that merged in 1903 to form Bellingham.

"It was a boomtown," Smith says. "There were fights in the streets; it was a wild place. Whatcom actually had a red light district, red lights that led down to the brothels."

Social mores eventually drove the practice underground. Smith and Vouri gathered information from historical accounts, city charters and first-hand interviews with old-timers who knew that side of Bellingham's existence, either directly or through friends or family.

Smith says his and Vouri's Rotary Club presentation on the practice hit a bit close to home for some folks.

"They were a little uptight at first, but they relaxed a bit when it became apparent that we weren't going to name names," Smith says.

Caleb Heeringa is a Seattle freelancer writer.

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