UnCommonwealth: Lexington dentist has spent much of his life giving back

Dr. Robert Henry discusses a prosthetic denture with his client at the Mission Lexington Dental Clinic on S. Martin Luther King in Lexington, Ky., Monday evening, November 9, 2015.
Dr. Robert Henry discusses a prosthetic denture with his client at the Mission Lexington Dental Clinic on S. Martin Luther King in Lexington, Ky., Monday evening, November 9, 2015. Herald-Leader

Had Robert Henry’s mother gotten her way, her son would have been a church organist.

Instead, Henry, who grew up on a farm in Jefferson County, became a dentist to patients at the Veterans Administration hospital — and to so many more at the Lexington Mission Dental Clinic on South Martin Luther King Boulevard.

Henry is a founding board member of the clinic, which opened in 2006. He is retiring from his administrative duties at the clinic, but not from volunteering there - working some evenings and on “pain day,” when dental procedures center around relieving patient discomfort.

On a recent Monday evening, Henry leaned in to fit a partial fixture -- literally a horseshoe-shaped line of teeth with a space in the middle -- into the mouth of a woman who has only a few lower natural teeth remaining.

It felt odd to her. She was concerned that it was bulky, because it had been so long since she had a mouth full of teeth.

Henry worked to make the fixture comfortable and the process comforting, teaching the woman how to remove the device herself: “Take as long as you need. Whenever you’re ready,” he murmured.

He also told the patient that with a full mouth of teeth, she could again attack her food “like a rabbit” - with a vigorous up and down chewing motion.

Lacking a full set of lower teeth, she had accustomed herself to using a workaround mashing motion with her mouth.

“How does that feel?” he asks her after inserting the device. “Is it painful or just different?”

The woman paid $200 for the device; such a device would cost $800-$1,000 at a regular dental practice. However, most of the clinic’s services are free to those who lack dental insurance and the money to pay for dental services; the clinic only charges for partial fixtures and dentures.

Ruta Valinskaite, the clinic’s manager, said that on a good evening the dental volunteers finish up around 9 p.m. On busier nights, it’s closer to midnight.

Henry will nonethless be back at the VA around 7:30 a.m. the next morning.

“Dentistry is my hobby,” he said.

Henry, along with fellow UK dentistry college faculty member Judy Skelton, helped to created a Community Based Public Health Dentistry elective for dental students. The course became the most popular elective and is so in demand that a lottery is held for the right to volunteer.

Before the clinic opened in its original location on South Limestone, Henry worked to construct and paint along with other volunteers. Two years ago, the clinic moved to Martin Luther King Boulevard, which has double the number of chairs.

Henry, 60, came to UK as an undergraduate hoping to become a basketball walk-on in the era of Adolf Rupp. He was trimmed in the final cut.

But that was no big setback, because Henry had science. That led him to dental school, a residency in the Pineville hospital, a two-year residency in North Carolina and finally a two-year fellowship in geratric dentistry in Loma Linda, California.

Henry also has a master’s degree in public health. As a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves, he has seen duty in locations such as Kosovo and Fort Bliss, Texas.

He started with the VA in Lexington in 1985 and has also been an associate professor at UK’s dental school.

While it was his professional interest that led him to UK and the VA, it was his religious faith that led him to the mission dental clinic.

Henry’s wife Donita was the clinic coordinator before her retirement. The Henrys have two daughters, Samantha and Lauren, and two grandchildren.

The Mission Lexington Dental Clinic was formed by members of Calvary Baptist and Faith Lutheran churches (the Henrys are members of Faith Lutheran). Good Shepherd Episcopal, Maxwell Street Presbyterian and First Presbyterian and other volunteer organizations joined the clinic, where care is provided by volunteers such as Henry -- much of it free.

Henry said he would come in contact with people around the VA -- even lower-level workers in the hospital -- who had no dental insurance and no money for dental care. They asked him if he could work on their teeth in his spare time, and occasionally to just pull a tooth to relieve their pain.

Henry is modest about his workload. Before volunteering at the current mission clinic, he volunteered at Nathaniel Mission. He argues that the clinic does fills a dental care gap in the Lexington community.

“We realized there was a need for such dental care in Lexington and nobody to provide it,” he said.

Cheryl Truman: 859-231-3202, @CherylTruman