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Fountain

Dr. Marvin Gertzberg was past 60 and ready to retire when he got a taste of new dental technology. What followed is one of the most amazing career reinventions our profession has ever witnessed.
S TO RY A N D P H OTO G R A P H Y BY J E S S E N E W M A N

Youth

of

IE: DR. MARVIN GERTZBERG

“don’t BE AN ENGINEER,” DR. GERTZBERG’S FAMILY DENTIST TOLD HIM. “WHY DO YOU WANT TO WORK FOR SOMEBODY ELSE? YOU WANT TO BE YOUR OWN BOSS. WHY DON’T YOU THINK ABOUT DENTISTRY?”
TECHNOLOGY CENTRAL: Dr. Gertzberg’s booming new office in Coxsackie, New York. He now sees some 100 new patients every month.

n eastern New YorK State, on the west bank of the Hudson River about 130 miles north of Manhattan, sits a small town called Coxsackie, whose name, locals say, de­ rives from a Native American term for “owl’s hoot.” Tiny Coxsackie, home to fewer than 10,000 residents, boasts only a few dental practices; the largest, New Baltimore Family Dentistry, occupies a spot near a sprawling antiques store, the Coxsackie Gun and Bow Shop and pictur­ esque fields full of wildflowers. The man who owns this practice, Dr. Marvin Gertzberg, is no mere babe in the nearby woods: When he was born, the United States was smack in the middle of World War II, Duke Ellington had just be­ gun playing Carnegie Hall and color televi­ sion in homes was a long way off. When he was newly graduated from high school in Albany, his first workplace was a Cold War submarine in the North Atlantic equipped with 16 nuclear missiles. Now 69, Dr. Gertzberg quit tinkering with naval technology long ago. For the

past 37 years, he has worked with teeth in­ stead. The crown of white hair that rings his head belies the fact that Dr. Gertzberg is now armed with the most modern dental technology available. It hasn’t always been this way. For star­ ters, Dr. Gertzberg never planned to be­ come a dentist. After serving four years above the Arctic Circle in the Navy, he re­ turned to New York intending to become a mechanical engineer. But his family dentist, Dr. Irwin Strosberg, had other ideas. Much to Strosberg’s dismay, his own son showed no interest in dentistry. So he turned his persuasive abilities on young Marvin. As Dr. Gertzberg recalls, he was in for a rou­ tine cleaning during his sophomore year of college when he mentioned his profes­ sional ambitions. “You don’t want to be an engineer,” Strosberg told him. “Why do you want to work for somebody else? You want to be your own boss. Why don’t you think about dentistry?” Intrigued by the idea, Dr. Gertzberg shadowed Strosberg for a day during his next holiday break. “I kind of liked what I saw,” he says. After graduating from SUNY-Albany, Dr. Gertzberg went on to pursue a dental de­

gree from the University of Maryland’s Baltimore Col­ lege of Dental Surgery. In 1975, toward the end of his residency at Albany Medi­ cal Center, he learned of a practice in Coxsackie whose owner had died several years earlier. Since then, a new dentist had begun see­ ing patients in the office one day a week, but the town was in desperate need of a full-time practitioner. Dr. Gertzberg bought the place. At the time, he says, there was one other den­ tist in business nearby, who turned out to be less than

charmed by the new arrival. “I thought maybe he’d welcome me as a fellow profes­ sional,” Dr. Gertzberg recalls. But he was cold and unfriendly, apparently concerned that his business was being encroached upon. Nevertheless, Dr. Gertzberg set up shop in his new practice, in a modest house on Elm Street. His staff was small — one dental associate and one hygienist — and his waiting room held only seven chairs. If those were occupied, patients had to wait outside in their cars. Fast-forward 30 years: Dr. Gertzberg was planning to retire. His office had be­ come worn and outdated, and he had grown weary of fixing people’s teeth. “You get stale doing the same darn thing day in and day out,” he says. “There’s no challenge to it anymore. The dentistry you could do with your eyes closed.” He began thinking about setting down his handpiece “to play golf and garden.” Once again, however, fate had other plans. Not long after, when a Benco Den­ tal representative showed up on his door­ step, Dr. Gertzberg was intrigued. One by one, the rep described the new, high-tech tools debuting in dental practices around the country. Given his longtime affection for mechanical engineering, Dr. Gertzberg was riveted by the cutting-edge technology. As though he had sipped from dentistry’s fountain of youth, the experience, he says, singlehandedly renewed his enthusiasm for his profession. First, he went digital. He purchased in­ traoral and panoramic X-ray machines and got rid of the toxic chemicals he had used for years to develop images of patients’ teeth. Then he bought a chairside CAD/ CAM system, enabling him to restore de­ cayed teeth, place crowns, remove defec­ tive fillings and place cosmetic veneers in a single appointment. Finally, he bought a Cone Beam, the low-dose X-ray machine that generates high-resolution, threedimensional images of a patient’s teeth, bone and soft tissue. “I got hooked on this high-tech dentistry,” Dr. Gertzberg says. “It changed my whole outlook. I was like a kid just graduating from dental school. It was such a rejuvenating experience. You can only stay antiquated for so long.” According to Dr. Gertzberg, the CAD/ CAM system alone has thoroughly trans­ formed his practice. Previously, patients had to make several trips to his office to get a crown. On the first visit, Dr. Gertzberg

“I REALLY got hooked on high-tech dentistry — It changed my whole outlook. I was REJUVENATED, like a kid just out of school. YOU CAN ONLY STAY ANTIQUATED FOR SO LONG.”

TOOLS OF THE TRADE: Dental technology has transformed Dr. Gertzberg’s practice — and his life.

would numb their mouth and prep their teeth. He’d take impressions and send them to a nearby lab. In the meantime, pa­ tients received temporary crowns. When they returned weeks later, Dr. Gertzberg would anesthetize them again and cement the permanent crowns into place. With the chairside system, which makes power­ ful use of computer-assisted technologies, he’s able to do the entire procedure in the office, in just two hours. “It’s easier for pa­ tients; it’s quicker for me,” he says. “It’s a win-win situation for everybody.” Dr. Gertzberg’s professional renais­ sance brought with it an unexpected ben­ efit: His practice boomed, both its patient load and its gross receipts. He outgrew the small house on Elm Street and began build­ ing from scratch a new, bigger one, which he painted a handsome shade of blue and surrounded with tall stands of goldenrod and cattails. The interior of the office is spacious and airy — and there are plenty of chairs in the waiting room. Dr. Gertzberg now has eight treatment rooms and a staff that in­ cludes three doctors, two hygienists and several front-office personnel who help keep everything flowing smoothly. Turning to the computer on his desk, Dr. Gertzberg squints at the monitor. Be­ fore him is a black screen split into quad­ rants by green lines that form a complex grid and look vaguely like a nautical chart.

Examining a patient’s threedimensional X-ray, Dr. Gertz­ berg uses his mouse to rotate the image of the skull this way and that. “Older dentists might be intimidated by technology. They figure it’s going to take too long to learn to use, so they just do it the old-fashioned way,” he says. “But it was a real shot in the arm. Along comes all this new stuff, and I can’t wait to get into the office in the morning.” With that, Dr. Gertzberg gets up and heads into his practice’s inner sanctum, a brightly lit room housing two CEREC ma­ chines. Dr. Gertzberg was so smitten with the technology that he bought two models, several years apart. “This is a milling ma­ chine,” he says, gesturing toward the older of the two. “And this” — he points to the newer unit — “is a milling machine on ster­ oids.” He switches it on. The device emits a warm green glow, its tiny robotic arms waiting to grasp the ceramic block that they’ll grind into a new tooth. “If you’re go­ ing to stay in it, you need to upgrade your equipment, techniques and skills,” he says. “The public wants that.” Apparently so. Dr. Gertzberg’s practice now has 3,500 active patients, with around 100 new ones arriving each month. His prime location, on Route 9W — a small highway that runs from New Jersey to Al­ bany — doesn’t hurt, either. Some 18,000 cars drive by his office every day, so he doesn’t need to advertise. “They come from all over,” he says. “Columbia County, Rens­ selaer County, Schoharie County, Greene County, Albany County. One man used to come up from Brooklyn.” Dr. Gertzberg says he takes great plea­ sure in treating multiple generations of the same family. “I used to see young children. Then I’d see them after they got married. I’ve now seen their children, and soon I’ll probably be seeing their grandchildren. It

JESSE NEWMAN’s work has appeared in the New York Times, Newsday, Time and Newsweek, among other publications. She is a frequent contributor to Incisal Edge.

makes me feel pretty old.” But despite near­ ly four decades on the job, he says retire­ ment just wouldn’t suit him. “I’ve thought about retiring in three or four years, but it scares me not to be able to come in here and do what I do. I get up with enthusiasm, and I look forward to coming here. Why would I want to give that up and retire?” What might Dr. Irwin Strosberg, the childhood dentist who turned him on to the profession, make of the technology that has revolutionized his practice in re­ cent years? “It would blow him away,” Dr. Gertzberg says. “He wouldn’t believe it. It would be like Henry Hudson sailing up the Hudson River in the Half Moon and seeing what has happened — all the cities, all the automobiles.” Inspired by the example of his old fam­ ily practitioner, in fact, Dr. Gertzberg now makes a point to return that favor by re­ cruiting a new generation into the profes­ sion. None of his own four children have followed him into dentistry, so he keeps a keen eye out for any young patients who might be interested in it. One day not long ago, Dr. Gertzberg prevailed upon a teen­ age boy whose mother said he was toying with the idea of going to dental school. The boy, named Danny, had come in for a rou­ tine cleaning. “You need to beg, borrow and steal anything you possibly can to get yourself into dental school,” Dr. Gertzberg told his potential protégé. “It’s an absolutely fan­ tastic profession.” Then he invited Danny to shadow him in the office for a day on his next break from school, just as Dr. Stros­ berg had done with him half a century be­ fore. “When I look around and see what has happened to this practice since it started,” he says, smiling, “I’m thankful every day I get up and go to work.” n