The Secret Lives of Dentists

What do our favorite dentists do when they’re not safeguarding our oral health? Meet a photographer and a ballroom dancer, a team of cyclists, a musician and an artist, all as accomplished in their off-hours as they are in the examining room.

The same drive that carries dentists and oral surgeons through the rigors of dental and medical school or running a practice often triggers a quest to perfect other skills, far from the sterile surfaces of their workaday life. How do some of our state’s top dentists spend their after-office hours? We met a photographer and a ballroom dancer, a group of cyclists, a musician and an artist, all who defy simple definition and all who strive to be the best in everything that they do. Meet some of Virginia’s most interesting dentists.

Periodontist and assistant professor Dr. Rob Sabatini encourages his students and residents at the VCU School of Dentistry in Richmond to adopt a hobby. “I always tell them, ‘it’s kind of too early for you, because of time commitments and financial limitations. But always be looking—always be looking for something that grabs you and makes you want to do it … because some day, you’re going to have more time.’”

Nature photography “grabbed” Sabatini, 58. “I grew up in the Bronx, New York, which is like a concrete jungle. And I remember going places like Scout camps, and always wanting to catch frogs and stuff like that I didn’t get to do in the city,” he says.

Sabatini’s current exhibit at the Tompkins-McCaw Library for the Health Sciences at VCU, Wild Things/Far and Near (through Sept. 30), comprises 32 photographs of animals from his travels both around the world and closer to home. The moments are intimate—a zebra grazing in the sunlight blaze in Kenya; sibling bear cubs nursing on a summer morning in Alaska—the timing, exquisite. “Golden Liftoff,” for instance, captures the moment a sandhill crane begins to take off from a frozen pond.

“To get a photograph of a living thing that’s posed just right, in good light, it’s very difficult,” he says. While he has traveled to places like Africa and South America on photo safaris, he finds taking photos of animals on the James River a greater challenge. On safaris, he says the guides “know how to find subjects, so they get you in front of stuff right away.”  

To take local photos, he’ll put on muck boots and a lightweight camouflage jacket applied with strips to simulate leaves. “They call it leafy camouflage,” he explains, “so you look like a tree person. If you sit in the weeds and trees, it’s really hard to see. And I’ve got my lens camo-taped. The more you blend in the better.”

The other key is, “If you get there first, you have a huge advantage.” Sabatini says he hides where he knows wildlife like to go. “I can sit out in 20 degrees for 5, 6 hours if I think something might happen.

“When you’re there 30 feet away and they don’t know you’re there, that’s when you feel like you’re starting to get good at it.”,

On weekends around Richmond, a pack of cyclists—mostly dentists and physicians—can often be found racking up miles on their bicycles. They wear matching jerseys emblazoned with what has to be one of the best cycling names around: The Spin Doctors.

“It’s an amorphous group …. over the years people have kind of come in and gone out,” says oral surgeon Dr. Gregory Zoghby of Commonwealth Oral & Facial Surgery, 54, one of the original crew, along with general dentists Dr. Lanny Levenson and Dr. Al Stanger, and urologist Dr. Eric Cote, who all practice in Richmond.

Zoghby started riding in 1975: “I went to high school in London. People didn’t have cars, they biked. .… In Europe, it’s very much a part of life.” Though much has changed, when he moved to the Richmond area in 1986, “there was actually not a lot of interest [in cycling]. I was kind of the odd duck for having Lycra and a bicycle.”

He found fellow bikers soon enough, and the group formed in 1988. Today, special rides can attract a herd of 20-30 Spin Doctors.

Early on, the group focused on charity rides like the Virginia Dare and the Sea Gull Century in Eastern Maryland. “We also do an annual New Year’s Day ride, rain or shine.” In 2004, some of the group traveled to watch the Tour de France, and even tackle some of the storied climbs. Members plan to join forces for the “Conquer the Cobbles” ride at the UCI World Championships in Richmond in September.

Whether at charitable events or casual rides on the weekends, the Spin Doctors are easily spotted in their jerseys. Designed by Zoghby, this year’s model is black, with a brightly-colored Mondrian-style design, and the motto: “The older we get, the faster we were.”

Patients, students and doctors stream continuously through the halls and waiting room of the busy VCU School of Dentistry, the state’s only dental school. Windows overlook a courtyard garden, which runs at a much slower pace. Here sits a life-size bronze statue of a boy picking his way across the grass on home-made stilts—his pants rolled up, a dog nipping at his heels. The statue was created by noted artist, writer and dental school alumni Dr. William H. Turner.

Turner, 79 and now retired from dentistry, grew up the son of a woodworker on the Eastern Shore. As a boy, he whittled, later learning to craft ceramic and porcelain pieces. He sold his works to upscale stores, including Neiman Marcus. “I worked my way through the Medical College of Virginia dental school doing ceramic figurines of animals,” he says. Eventually, he switched to bronze, explaining that, “you can do big pieces …. and there’s an immense amount of freedom with bronze.”

With his wife, Mary Ann, he lives on a farm on the Chesapeake Bay. (Both come from families that have lived on the Eastern Shore since the 1600s.) His son Bill, a dentist, lives nearby, as does Bob, another son, an attorney who lives on the 60-acre family farm.

The farm was featured in the 1961 film Misty of Chincoteague; it is there, in an old airplane hangar, that Turner cast his first bronzes. More than 1,200 acres of protected marshland lie near the property providing inspiration for the dentist who, for many years, was the only dentist serving Tangier Island, flying there once a week.

“There’s a conservation easement and a lot of wildlife there,” says Turner, whose sculptures often feature birds and other animals.  

With his third son, artist David—who lives down the road and does most of the bronzes these days—he opened Turner Sculpture in Onley in 1983, which includes a gallery, studios (where Turner also creates paintings), a woodshop and a foundry. “When they light up the furnace, you can smell gas and molten metal,” he says.

Together, the pair has created more than 600 different limited edition bronzes and more than 100 large public commissions, including those installed at the Virginia Marine Science Museum, the Philadelphia Zoo and the American Museum of Natural History. Their sculptures range from less than $100 to $100,000 or more. (This summer, Dr. Turner will also publish his fourth book, The Last of the Ebb, about his life growing up on the Eastern Shore.)

When asked about his favorite pieces, he teasingly replies, “I don’t like any of them.” When pressed, he concedes that “Rutting White Tail Bucks,” on display at UVA, “is not too bad a piece.” What about “Boy on Stilts”?

He pauses. “That one’s not too bad, either.”

When approached about participating in Dancing with the Richmond Stars—a fundraiser held in March modeled after the popular TV show—Dr. Fadi Hasan didn’t hesitate. “It took me two seconds and I said, ‘Yes,’” he recalls.

Hasan, 31, who will join a practice in Maryland after completing his residency in periodontics at VCU, told his dance partner he was “in it to win”—despite having no experience with ballroom dancing. The Iraqi native is also missing part of a foot, due to a traumatic injury.

Hasan grew up in Baghdad, but lived for four years in Scotland while his father pursued his Ph.D. at the University of Dundee. When Hasan was 9 years old, the family returned to Baghdad. His father was a government official before and after the U.S. invaded Iraq and deposed Saddam Hussein—he was appointed the minister of electricity in 2006—and, sadly, “When anyone in your family is in a high government position, naturally you are targeted by insurgents,” he says. “We had a lot of Al-Qaeda in Iraq at that time.”

In 2007, about six weeks before Hasan’s graduation from dental school at the University of Baghdad, members of the terrorist group planted a bomb under his school locker. “It was me and my friend walking to my locker. I was about to open it when the whole thing just exploded. I lost my best friend who was standing right there beside me. He passed away within a few minutes.”

Hasan had to undergo a partial amputation of his left foot—the first of many surgeries to come. Determined to live his life fully, he graduated on time and received his dental degree. He then moved to the U.S. and completed a two-year program at the University of Colorado, receiving a DDS—the degree required to practice in the U.S.

Eight years after the explosion, he still experiences severe pain. Despite this, he approached the dance competition in March with enthusiasm, taking 12 hours of dance lessons with partner Nicole Libby of Rigby’s Jig—“a phenomenal instructor,” he says. The pair had to alter some moves to avoid putting too much pressure on his left foot as they prepared a waltz to “Once Upon a December” from the movie Anastasia.

At the competition, the duo displayed drama and impressive lifts—and won the top prize, the Mirrored Ball Trophy. “We had a wonderful time,” he says, noting that the event raised about $91,000 for the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU.

The hard-earned victory is especially sweet, considering the difficulties he has overcome: “As long as I’ve got a second chance to live, I might as well make the most of it.”

Dr. Jackson (“Jack”) Faircloth Jr., of Central Virginia Oral & Facial Surgeons, is a semi-retired oral surgeon in Charlottesville who knows how to rock. A longtime music lover—he had just returned from the New Orleans Jazz Fest on the day of this interview—he plays lead rhythm guitar for a classic rock and blues cover band, the dentist-heavy Lockjaw.

Faircloth, 66, grew up in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. A college athlete at UNC-Chapel Hill (which he attended as both an undergraduate and dental school student), he completed his surgical residency with the U.S. Air Force. He retired as a colonel in 2000 and went into private practice.

In 2002, a casual performance with some friends at a barn party—“we got a great response,” he says—led to the creation of Lockjaw. In addition to Faircloth, the band includes dentists Dr. Emery Taylor (bass), Dr. J.C. Wolfe (lead guitar) and Dr. Jeff Spence (vocals) along with Don McElwee (drummer) and Mary-Margaret Gardiner (vocals), all from the Charlottesville area.

The band got its start performing at parties and clubs like Durty Nelly’s and Fellini’s near the downtown mall. Upcoming shows include Sunsets on Carter Mountain (July 23 and Sept. 17). Typically, he explains, “We’ll start out easy, playing maybe a little Van Morrison.” Later in the evening, when “the hard core people” linger, the band fires off hits by the Rolling Stones, ZZ Top, Bad Company, The Beatles, Eddie Floyd, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and others. Faircloth joins other band members in traveling twice a year to Chicago to take in the blues scene.

Faircloth, who is also passionate about skiing, thinks it is important for dentists to have hobbies outside their practices.

“I’d throw all my energy into work. It can wear you out seeing 20-30 people a day. I’d come home and be tired of talking,” he says. Playing music “is just a good way to unwind.”

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