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U of M lends a hand to abuse/trauma victims

U of M's sixth annual Domestic Violence Awareness Week
Operation Smile

U of M alumnus Mickey Bernstein sends victims of domestic abuse away with a better outlook on life.

By Sara Hoover

Sixty-one-year-old Memphis native Dr. Mickey Bernstein (BS ’71) is in the “happiness business.”

An accredited member and immediate past president of the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, Bernstein volunteers with the Academy’s Give Back A Smile program that provides free cosmetic dentistry to victims of domestic violence.

“We’re in the ‘changing lives business.’ It’s not just about fixing teeth and fixing smiles,” says Bernstein. 

In 1975, he started Germantown Dental Group that focuses on family and restorative care and cosmetic dentistry, and has volunteered with Give Back A Smile since 1999.

“Seventy-five percent of all battering occurs to the head and face, resulting in a lot of damaged teeth due to domestic violence,” says Lisa Fitch, foundation program manager for Give Back A Smile. “Bruises and scars fade but damaged teeth cannot repair themselves. Give Back A Smile restores the smiles of survivors of domestic violence, which can give them a sense of closure, an increase in self-esteem and confidence to re-enter the work force.” 

Bernstein gives his presidential address at the 25th anniversary of the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry.
Bernstein gives his presidential address at the 25th anniversary of the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry.

Administered by the Academy’s Charitable Foundation, Give Back A Smile has completed 700 cases and provided $6 million in services since its inception 10 years ago.

“When they can’t smile, they can’t get a job,” says Bernstein of his patients. “They can’t interact with the public very well. They can’t feed their children. This program helps that one piece of the puzzle of their life get back together.”

Bernstein has also done fundraisers for the past two years, raising more than $12,000 for the program.

Although men make up less than 1 percent of Give Back A Smile cases, Bernstein’s most recent patient is a 62-year-old man, Jay Lester.

“The gentleman was in a relationship with a lady who was on drugs,” says Bernstein. “He wouldn’t give her any more money for drugs. She threw a coffee cup at him and broke his teeth. She was later murdered by a drug pusher she owed money to.”

Lester’s work included periodontal scaling, teeth extraction, bonding and a bridge, which took nine months to complete.

“It’s a process that takes a while, but it makes you feel better,” says Lester. “Your self-esteem is improved. Just knowing that you’re going to have a better appearance makes you feel better.”

Started by Dr. Wynn Okuda, the mission of the program is “to restore a life by restoring a smile.”

“I had needed some extensive dental work and I couldn’t afford it,” says Lester. “Dr. Bernstein and his staff have been absolutely wonderful. They’ve done a terrific job.”

A Fellow of the Academy of General Dentistry, Bernstein also has an interest in helping people with eating disorders.

Give Back a Smile patient Jay Lester with Bernstein after Lester's final procedure.
Give Back a Smile patient Jay Lester with Bernstein after Lester's final procedure.

“People who are still bulimic oftentimes show up at the cosmetic dentist and want their teeth restored because they’re eroding the enamel away and it doesn’t look good,” says Bernstein. “People who have the disorder are very good at lying. Their family doesn’t know it quite often. Their spouse doesn’t know it. But I know it. I can see the evidence in their mouth.”

Wanting to educate fellow dentists, Bernstein teaches several classes, including one on the psychology of cosmetic dentistry with a clinical psychologist.

Angela Andrews, a dental hygienist, first met Bernstein as a young patient and then worked in his office during high school. Now 23 and a full-time employee of his, Andrews can’t imagine working anywhere else.

“He has a very large heart. I’ve gotten to know him on a very personal level since I’ve been here for so long. He’s got this deep, settled voice that’s comforting. He’s very easy to work for and has a great attitude all the time.”

Born in Memphis, Bernstein has fond memories of his days as a biology major at then-Memphis State University, going to music concerts and football games. He also remembers a photojournalism assignment.

“I took a black-and-white photography course in ’69. There was a protest with the Black Student Association doing a sit-in at the Administration (Building). They were guided out of the building, into the bus and taken to jail. I documented it. I just had my camera and was on campus.”

Married for 18 years to his wife, Diane, Bernstein keeps busy with seven children and nine grandchildren. He’s also a retired marathoner and exercise junkie.

Christina Ballard, patient coordinator for the past three years, admires her boss: “He loves what he does, just loves it. He’s such a giver. I could call him in the middle of the night and say, ‘I really need to borrow your truck’ and he would say, ‘I’m on my way over.’ He’s kind of like the big grandpa you never had.”

Bernstein seems to leave a trail of smiles wherever he goes.

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Last Updated: 1/23/12