Never fear! Toothpaste man is here!


Note: This story originally was featured in the spring 2017 issue of Berry magazine.

Ben Popple dressed as toothpaste manForget zombies. Forget aliens. Forget pirates. When Halloween rolls around, there’s only one costume Dr. Ben Popple (09C) wants to don. It’s the one that transforms him into a superhero beyond the wildest imaginings of even the most creative folks at Marvel Comics: Toothpaste Man!

That’s right. When darkness descends on All Hallows’ Eve, the pediatric dentist with a thriving practice mobilizes his team of tooth fairies to take to the streets preaching the gospel of good oral hygiene. Community volunteers provide back-up, handing out toothbrushes from their front porches, while Popple, wife “Deanna the Tooth Fairy” and son “Baby-Tooth Landon” wait patiently to bestow the secret to a healthy smile upon all the ghosties and ghoulies who come to their door.

This high level of creativity and passion is Popple’s trademark, and it shows in everything he does, from orchestrating a fun-spirited public service effort to helping a child with special needs become comfortable with dental care.

Patient-focused care for pint-sized patients

Popple took a leap of faith two years ago when he started his own practice immediately following his dental residency at Yale University. Although setting up a business on his own without a patient base was a risky move, Popple knew it was the right one.

“I had shopped around for places to work and realized my personality didn’t fit with working for someone else,” he said. “I have a particular way I like to do things. It just made sense to do my own thing.”

While finishing his residency in Connecticut, Popple began working with contractors to renovate an existing dental office in Newnan, Ga. Every few weeks, he would fly down to check on progress and then return home the following day. With the dual pressures of finishing his work at Yale and having a baby on the way, it was a grueling experience, but his instincts were spot on. White Oak Pediatric Dentistry grew quickly following its August 2015 grand opening.

His approach, no doubt, is one of the secrets to his success.

“I am prevention-focused,” he said. “If kids never get cavities, we don’t have to deal with the aftereffects.”

He’s onto something: Nearly 20 percent of Americans experience so much anxiety about visiting the dentist that they only go when it is absolutely necessary, and for many, fear is rooted in an unpleasant childhood experience.

Popple and his staff focus on helping their young patients have a positive experience by creating a comfortable, fun, family-oriented atmosphere that goes far beyond kid-sized furniture and pictures of cute animals on the walls. Basing each first visit on a child’s comfort level, he welcomes parents into the exam room, establishing trust by showing them exactly what is going on and explaining how he can fix the problem.

But he doesn’t stop there. With his emphasis on prevention, Popple helps parents identify and address the causes of their children’s dental issues. He also uses his website (www.WhiteOakKids.com) as a repository of educational slideshows and videos for parents to access at home to continue or reinforce what they learned in the office. Using technology to improve oral health is something he became interested in during his residency when he worked with a team at Yale Child Study Center. In their study, Remotely Delivered Video Modeling for Improving Oral Hygiene in Children with ASD: A Pilot Study, they used technology to teach good oral hygiene practices to patients with autism spectrum disorders.

Special care for special needs

Ben Popple with dental patient

Popple learned about the challenges of treating patients with autism while pursuing his doctorate in dental medicine at the Medical College of Georgia. He wondered if prevention could make a difference for these special patients but had to wait until his residency to explore the idea. As providence would have it, waiting was the best thing he could have done.

The Yale School of Medicine’s Child Study Center is a hub of autism research with one of the nation’s foremost experts at its helm: Fred R. Volkmar, M.D. Drawing on lessons learned at Berry about the importance of mentors and how to find them, Popple reached out.

“I sent Dr. Volkmar an email asking to meet with him,” Popple said. “I didn’t expect him to respond, but he replied immediately. I met him the next day and pitched my idea. He took me under his wing, introduced me to a team at Yale Child Study Center led by Fred Shic, Ph.D., and we worked together to make it happen.”

Popple’s idea was to create a technology-based presentation using both spoken and written communication to teach children with autism how to properly brush their teeth. By using the audio-visual approach, he could help children understand, regardless of their learning styles.

The results of his small study were promising, and the educational tool he created for it formed the basis of his teaching technique today.

A new chapter

While at Berry, Popple distinguished himself as a student-athlete playing soccer throughout his four years, an artist whose paintings of campus landmarks still hang in Berry offices, and a leader who served as president of his class and Athletes Bettering the Community his senior year. Now a busy husband, father and business owner, he has little time for recreational pursuits but still makes time to serve his community with efforts such as the Halloween toothbrush campaign.

And how did all those toothbrushes go over?

“They were a hit,” he said, laughing. “As it got later in the evening, kids started coming to the door asking for them more than for candy. At first, we wondered what was going on. Then we realized that the toothbrushes were glowing in the dark.”

What a way to promote a neighborhood of bright smiles.