Traumatic experience in chair inspires Orange dentist to open kid-friendly practice
Pediatric dentist Paula C. Cerqueira knows what it’s like to have a nightmarish childhood experience in the chair. It is part of what drove her to open her new practice, Orange Children’s Dentistry.
It was the early 1980s in her native Portugal, when kids typically only went to the dentist when a problem developed.
Cerqueira was about 6 years old and needed a baby tooth pulled — unfortunately the first thing she noticed in the waiting room was a cabinet filled with dentures. After years of hearing “if you don’t brush your teeth, they’ll fall out” — the refrain heard by many in that era — she became convinced that she’d be getting false teeth during her visit.
So when she got into the dentist’s chair, Cerqueira was so frightened she wouldn’t open her mouth, she said. The nurse pinched her nose hard until her mouth opened, leaving her with a visible, long lasting bruise.
“The whole experience was traumatic,” she said. “I realized that’s not the way we should do things.”
Her new office at 518 Boston Post Road, set to open in January, was “built from the ground up with children in mind,” and is the town’s first pediatric dental office.
“Every child comes in with a different temperament. Life experience, coping skills and dental needs,” she said. “You have to figure out how to treat that one child.”
She said children experience dental visits differently than adults, “and certain parts of their care will stay planted in their memories forever.”
The atmosphere at Orange Children’s Dentistry is welcoming to kids — it’s bright, there’s a playscape and a beam projects a floor game in the waiting room. There are Magna Doodles around for children to sketch with and flat-screen televisions on the ceiling above each chair.
Carol Smullen, executive director of Orange Chamber of Commerce, was taken by the plush reindeer antlers sitting atop the X-ray machine.
“I think the kids will enjoy coming to the dentist,” Smullen said, recalling how different it was during her childhood. “This is wonderful. We have a bunch of businesses, but we don’t have a children’s dentist.”
While the office is welcoming, it’s not over the top with stimulation like some children’s dental offices — and that’s by design, she said.
“I wanted to do something that reflects my personality — I’m not loud or vivacious — I’m quiet,” Cerqueira said. “A lot of kids like a loud environment, but you need a quiet environment for dentistry, because you need them to sit in the chair.”
She said she is prepared to treat children with autism, sensory issues and other special needs. Cerqueira said they have headphones for eliminating disturbing noise, weighted blankets, longer appointments if necessary and she has privileges at Bridgeport Hospital in case anesthesia is required.
It used to be recommended children see a dentist for the first time at 3 or 4 years old, but now the recommended age is 1 so oral hygiene can be addressed and pediatric dentists can look for other issues with the head, neck and conditions of the tongue and lips that can affect nursing and speech, Cerqueira said.
“It’s important they establish a dental home,”she said.
Her family came to the United States when Cerqueira was about 10 years old. Later in life when she was a dental assistant in Long Island, the dentist she worked for encouraged Cerqueira to also become a dentist. She graduated from Tufts University School of Dental Medicine and worked as a general dentist for three years.
She loved working with children, so she went back to school for two years to become a pediatric dentist, she said.
Cerqueira lives in Milford and is married to a general dentist, Richard Putnam, who practices at Lifelong Dental in Milford. Together they have four children between the ages of 2 and 8, and she has two stepchildren.
Cerqueira said she knew she wanted to open in Orange because the community is family-minded and doesn’t have a practice devoted to children, but finding the right location was tricky because she wanted everything to be kid-friendly, including the parking lot.
The opening has been delayed until January because of training schedules, and for now she’ll be a one-woman treatment show, even doing the cleanings. Even though the office isn’t open yet, appointments are being scheduled. For more information, call 203-404-2224.