Dentist rides circuit fixing teeth If it's Wednesday, Pasadena man hits road making house calls

September 24, 1995|By CONSELLA A. LEE | CONSELLA A. LEE,SUN STAFF

Every Wednesday finds Dr. Joseph F. Bee up at 6:30 a.m., packing gauze, painkillers, latex gloves -- tools he'll need for another day on the road.

If necessary, he'll go as far as Rising Sun to bring dental services to the elderly, nursing home patients and agoraphobics afraid of leaving home.

"I get a lot of pleasure out of it," said Dr. Bee, 44, of Pasadena. "It's almost like a ministry because you touch these people's lives, and over the years you get close to them."

He is a rarity in the modern era, a throwback to the time of circuit-riding preachers and doctors who made house calls. Dr. Bee believes that only one other Maryland dentist is running a similar practice.

Joyce Maher-Burke, director of continuing education for the Maryland Dental Association, said she never had heard of a traveling dentist until Dr. Bee came to her attention.

National statistics on dentists such as Dr. Bee don't exist. But John S. Rutkauskas, executive director of the Federation of Special Care Organizations in Chicago, said the demand for his kind of service is "very high," particularly for nursing home patients who may have difficulty getting to a dentist's office.

Dr. Bee, a dentist for 18 years, started his traveling service five years ago. A former patient with multiple sclerosis had changed dentists, because another dentist's office was easier to reach. Since then, Dr. Bee has invested $7,000 in portable dental equipment.

He has filled cavities, made denture moldings and pulled teeth while patients sat on their beds or in wheelchairs or recliners. At his father's home in Rockville, he did some bridge work while Joseph F. Bee Sr., 77, stretched out on a couch.

His patients find him through the state dental association, home health care professionals, physicians and other dentists. Some months he has more patients than he can handle, he said. Besides dentistry, he also helps some patients with prayer.

"I don't press my beliefs on people," said Dr. Bee, a Seventh-day Adventist. "But if people are open to a word of encouragement, I'll do it. For some it makes a really big difference."

But "I'm a dentist first," he said. "I'm not there to evangelize."

Dorothy Sutch, a patient at North Arundel Hospital in Glen Burnie, received the benefits of Dr. Bee's medical and evangelical services. Mrs. Sutch, 76, had lost her lower denture.

"They found them the other day and then I lost them again," she told Dr. Bee. "I can't believe that I lost them twice."

Dr. Bee nodded and quickly transformed Mrs. Sutch's eating table into a work stand. He pulled a small gas burner from his duffel bag and turned on the flame. As he passed a pink unmolded denture through the fire, he bantered with Mrs. Sutch about the heat wave that seemed to have Maryland on the verge of a meltdown.

A few minutes later, he had fitted her for a new denture to send off to the lab.

"Thank you so much for coming," she said. "I really appreciate it."

"God loves you," Dr. Bee said, grabbing her hand and bowing his head in prayer. "Don't you forget it, OK?" Then he was off on another call.

Dr. Bee's father, a civil engineer, had encouraged him to pursue engineering, but he always wanted to be a doctor.

"I can remember my mother saying, 'Dr. Bee wanted in surgery,' " he said, smiling at the memory. "She brainwashed me."

He considered medical school at the University of Maryland, but chose dental school after deciding that a doctor's long, irregular hours weren't for him. He has an office attached to his home in the 4300 block of Mountain Road.

His wife, Margaret, 39, is a receptionist there and often rides with him on his Wednesday travels. Sometimes their children, Robert, 6, and Jacqueline, 10, tag along in the family's 1992 Chevrolet Lumina minivan.

"In private practice, I might produce $1,500 in a day," said Dr. Bee. He makes maybe a third as much on his road days. But money isn't his main concern on Wednesdays, he said. There's a need that must be filled.

On a recent visit to the Meridian Nursing Center in Randallstown, he found Dorothy Rutkowski, 65, waiting with her husband of 41 years, Henry M. Rutkowski, 67. At one time, Mr. Rutkowski could lift 200 pounds of aluminum at his job with Washington Aluminum Co. in Baltimore. Now he is bedridden, unable to speak or care for himself. Some doctors say he has Alzheimer's disease.

Dr. Bee's visit was to clear up an infection in one of Mr. Rutkowski's cavities. The nursing home directed Mrs. Rutkowski to Dr. Bee.

As Dr. Bee started working, Mrs. Rutkowski stroked her husband's white hair and talked to him.

"He knows her voice," Dr. Bee said above the whirring of his drill. "Often times a patient will become combative. But when they hear that familiar voice and feel that familiar touch, it lets them feel they're in control."

After filling two cavities, Dr. Bee packed his equipment -- drills, miniature air compressor, white hat with coal miner-like headlamp -- and prepared for the next stop.

"It's just a little bit of extra work to take these things out of the practice and do the dental work for the patient," he said. "It's not that hard. It just takes a little time."

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