September 2010

Dr. Bonnie Rothwell - Open Wide And Say Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrt...

Author: David Tobias | Photographer: John Brackett

It is simply amazing that such a peaceful, tastefully appointed dentist’s office would inspire such passion. But it does. The passionate ones are those who have opened their mouths and let in Dr. Bonnie Rothwell to create works of art, and they can’t wait to say that their experience with this gentle lady in the bright white smock has been nothing short of life-changing.

The office itself is quiet and modestly elegant, with comfortable seating and—surprise, surprise—magazines worth reading.

Large pieces of local art (stunning sepias by noted photographer Ben Ham) dominate a conference room wall and are dramatically prominent in every treatment room. It’s harmonious. Light streams in through wide windows, showcasing serene views of live oaks trailing Spanish moss.

Oddly, there are no shrill drilling sounds, and somehow the smells you’d expect in a dental office are just not there. It’s clean, crisp and professional. Design, of course, is always intentional. And this one sets the tone for a dental experience that’s as much about art as it is about mouths and molars.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Dr. Rothwell says it was her goal early on to become an artist. Painting was her particular interest, and she considered it a likely career. Her orthodondist encouraged her to consider dentistry to combine her twin loves of art and science, even though the art part was less obvious at the time.

Since Dr. Rothwell entered the field of general and cosmetic dentistry, after graduating from the Medical University of South Carolina and completing a residency in St. Petersburg, Florida, dentistry has changed in major ways, especially in the last 10 years. There’s now room in the profession for artists, sculptors, craftspeople and technicians—especially when they’re all rolled into one. Cosmetic dentistry especially requires all the technical skills of an artist: creativity, imagination, an eye for composition, and extensive knowledge of art materials, colors and contours.


(from left to right) Ashleigh Clyburn (hygienist), Dr. Bonnie Rothwell, Sheryl Prisby (patient coordinator), Janine Mitchell (dental assistant)

Recognizing the blazing pace of change in the field, Dr. Rothwell took over 100 hours of continuing education credits last year—14 are required to maintain a license. She’s also the only woman in South Carolina fully accredited by the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, which, she says, was an achievement of the entire office staff, not just her.

Her patients talk with passion and enthusiasm about how extensively their lives and looks have changed, thanks to Dr. Rothwell.

Several years ago, Tom Tomfohrde, a Hilton Head Island resident, was having trouble with old fillings breaking. “Heavy maintenance issues,” he said. As things broke, he had them fixed, and then something else would break, requiring lots of back and forth to the dentist.

“Bonnie went in with fiber optics, which I’d never had done before, and took detailed photography of my teeth to show me, in magnified form, what was causing the chipping and breaking,” Tomfohrde said. “She showed me, on a TV monitor, how messed up the old fillings were and what was causing all those problems.

“She said, ‘I can cap those, and you’ll never have these kinds of problems again.’ She took the old fillings out, replaced them with porcelain crowns, and my problems just went away. There’s a side benefit to all this. She has the technology to custom-craft veneers and crowns in such a way that you end up with perfect teeth—better even than when I was a teenager. These teeth will outlive me.

“I can’t believe she could take 68-year-old teeth and make them like new,” Tomfohrde said. “I wish I could find someone who could do that with the rest of my body.”

Jo Anne Rizza, a Hilton Head Island real estate professional, calls Dr. Rothwell “my favorite person in the whole wide world.” She extends superlatives to the entire Dr. Rothwell office staff as well, calling assistant and receptionist Janine Mitchell, patient coordinator Sheryl Prisby and hygienist Ashleigh Clyburn “very caring and thoughtful.”

“They take their time to get things absolutely right, and you never feel rushed; they create work that they can be proud of and they really seem to take dentistry to the next level.”

Rizza says she gets compliments on her smile all the time.

“The befores and afters are pretty amazing. I play a little game where I show my family pictures and ask them which ones were my teeth before, and they’re astonished. Now I have the confidence to smile. When I feel that confidence, it brightens me on the inside and I can project that to the world around me.”

Dr. Rothwell says she takes special pride in listening and taking the time to get to know her patients. She’s fully aware that she’s in a profession and a specialty that has the power to transform. Sometimes, she says, her patients can’t imagine how going through it all will change their appearance and their lives.

“Everybody’s different,” Dr. Rothwell said. “Sometimes they want their teeth as white as my jacket, and sometimes they want them to be perfectly straight. But sometimes they want little imperfections to add character.”

The office encourages patients to bring photos of people whose teeth they’d like their own teeth to look like. One patient brought a picture of Eva Longoria and asked that her teeth be made to look like hers.

“Take a close look sometime,” Dr. Rothwell says. “Eva Longoria’s teeth are beautiful, but they’re not perfect.”


Digital Radiographs (X-Rays)

Brenda Whitlow, a Hilton Head Island resident whose profession (permanent cosmetics) is a companion to cosmetic dentistry, met Dr. Rothwell while the two were on a speaking circuit and later became a patient.

“It’s a sweet marriage, our two businesses,” Whitlow said. “Bonnie and I did public engagements together. She’s a quiet lady; she doesn’t push herself on you, but when she shows up, she’s fully present. I’m struck most by her demeanor; she makes you feel safe.

Whitlow’s smile was carefully crafted, by mixing composites over castings and veneers, and Dr. Rothwell invited her to weigh in with opinions and suggestions.

“It was like an eye exam: how’s this? Is this better? How’s this? A little bit here and there,” Whitlow said. “She was taking her time, asking questions, making adjustments. That’s a lot of work. And I have been ecstatically happy.

“Our businesses are similar. You have to take time to do things right and have the passion (so as to) not take shortcuts with the details.”

No one knows that better than Dr. Rothwell.

After all, that’s her artwork walking around.

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