“Toothfully” speaking, local dentist age a concern

Dr. Michael Wood practices as a dentist in Clovis. Wood, 56, said the high age of dentists in Clovis and the lack of candidates to replace them means, “We’re headed for a crash.” (CNJ staff photo: Andy DeLisle)

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ Staff Writer

Demand for dentists in Clovis has kept octogenarian Dr. O.T. Rozzell from setting aside his white gloves, his drills and his needles. The 80-year-old dentist still provides oral care to impoverished children with a mobile dentistry team.
“I’m tired,” the white-haired dentist admits.

“We need dentists badly in Clovis. When a child gets a toothache, they can’t get any service,” Rozzell said.

Half of the dozen or so dentists who practice in Clovis are nearing retirement, according to Clovis dentists. Without young dentists to replace them, finding dental care in Clovis could become difficult.

“We’re headed for a crash,” said Dr. Michael Wood, a 56-year-old Clovis dentist.
Wood has 3,000 to 4,000 patients. Every month, he turns away an average of 24 people seeking treatment, he estimated. Rozzell said buses filled with children are sent to Albuquerque for oral care every two weeks.

According to a 2003 Georgetown University study, there are 29 dentists per 100,000 residents in most rural areas, compared to 61 per 100,000 in urban areas.

Rural residents in Fort Sumner, Melrose, Texico, Grady and Farwell also heavily rely on dental services in Clovis.

“You can only do so much when you are one person,” Wood said.

The dental profession struggles to recruit young professionals to rural communities, said Dr. Kennedy Merritt, a 59-year-old Clovis dentist.

The majority of dentists who do practice in Clovis have roots in the area, said Wood, his ostrich-skin boots a hint at his youth on a northern Curry County farm and ranch.

Wood, who assumed the reins at a Clovis practice in the 1970s, was encouraged to do so by his childhood dentist, Dr. Jacob Moberly.

“He planted that seed in my mind when I was an early teen,” Wood said.

Merritt, too, is a Clovis native.

“I knew I was coming back to Clovis from day one,” he said.

These days, there is less to lure rural-born dentists back, according to those in the profession.

Young dentists graduate from school saddled with debt and accustomed to city living, according to Merritt.

“It used to be you could get out of school and open your own practice and go to work. Anymore, they (young dentists) owe so much for their education, they have to be an employee and get their loans paid off,” Merritt said.

“It is incumbent upon those of us in rural communities to get involved,” he said, “and try to mentor pre-dental students so maybe more of them will see the advantages of a living in a rural community.”

Wood also feels obliged.

He encourages some of his young patients toward the dentistry as Moberly once did for him.

“We need to grow our own (dentists) through encouragement,” said Wood, his hair tinged with white.

“We are waiting for the summer harvest of the seeds we’ve sewn,” he said.