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How a Survivor Helped Grow My Practice...40 New Families in a Day

Oct. 1, 2006
According to some critics, TV viewers can be easily divided into two camps: those who watch PBS and the rest of us.
"Survivor" Rupert Boneham with Dr. Mark Dolson
Click here to enlarge image

According to some critics, TV viewers can be easily divided into two camps: those who watch PBS and the rest of us. Many years ago the rest of us (that includes me, our dental team, and lots of patients!) got hooked on the CBS reality show, “Survivor.” In the operatory we often talked about recent episodes. Who would be voted off the island? What characters were favored to win?

This spring, while our team was planning a Patient Appreciation Day and considering a local celebrity appearance to help draw prospective patients, I wondered aloud if we could get Rupert Boneham to make an appearance. Rupert wasn’t just my favorite “Survivor.” In 2004 he received 85 percent of the 38 million votes cast by viewers for their favorite Survivor All-Star. Whether you know Rupert or not, you can’t argue with those numbers. He is arguably the most popular player in reality TV history. I figured if he could command that kind of following, surely prospective patients would want to meet him.

Rupert Boneham with Dr. Dolson's team. Front row, from left: Diana Macrander, Leslie Smith, Liz Greenway. Back row, from left: April Strain, Rupert, Carol Martin, Britney Kearns.
Click here to enlarge image

I really had no idea how much an appearance fee would be, but decided it wouldn’t cost anything to ask. With minimal Internet research followed by an e-mail, I was soon talking to his wife and agent, Laura, about the cost of a Rupert appearance. Days later, while I was still considering my budget for the appearance fee, I received a call from Rupert himself. Admitting to some dental phobia, recent pain, and a long time between dental visits, he wondered if I’d be willing to see him and his family as patients. When we met, he said, we could talk more about his appearance.

Rupert drove to my practice in O’Fallon, Mo., about 250 miles from his home in Indiana. After an exam, some restorative work, and a lot of fun reliving his experience on the show, I asked a simple question: How do you feel about your smile? That question led to an honest and open discussion. Rupert was embarrassed by his teeth and had been for a very long time. Even fans often asked him why he didn’t do something about his appearance. I showed him information on smile makeovers, including a few before/after photos, and he left.

Just days later I got another call from Rupert. He wanted a smile makeover and wanted it soon. And yes, he would be happy to visit on Patient Appreciation Day.

In “Survivor” terms, we’d made an alliance!

The case was a huge success. I’ll leave it to Keller Labs to tell you that story. You can see more case photographs on their Web site. But for me, the big payoff was watching Rupert interact with fans, children, and our dental team. We had great fun that day and great results.

Forty new families joined our practice on Patient Appreciation Day.

I want to thank my marketing “mastermind” group, and especially my marketing mentor, Ed O’Keefe, for challenging me to think outside the box about usual patient promotions.

I want to thank Dr. Ralph Riley, a member of our mastermind group who gave me clinical guidance and confidence that I could do the case.

And I want to thank Keller Laboratory for helping me with case design, sequencing, and fabricating the beautiful Empress restorations that I placed in less time than it took me to remove the temporaries. When it came to doing the largest case of my clinical career on a very public celebrity, I turned to the people I trust, and they delivered.

My final word on this entire experience is ASK. It seems so simple. Just asking about the possibility of a Rupert appearance, and then asking about his smile, set in motion a sequence of events that led to a successful new-patient marketing event and great fun for our entire dental team.

Dr. Mark Dolson graduated from the University of Missouri Kansas City School of Dentistry in 2000. He has a family practice in O’Fallon, Mo. You may contact Dr. Dolson by e-mail at [email protected], or visit

Up Close with Dr. Dolson

Exactly what was done during Rupert’s smile makeover?

The initial appointment included a thorough exam and patient interview, followed by deep root scaling and prophy, endodontic treatment on Tooth No. 14, caries removal, and new restorations for Teeth Nos. 14 and 4.

In anticipation of possible cosmetic rehabilitation, photographic records, study models, and centric bite records were taken to facilitate case planning and possible progression to laboratory mounting and wax-up per Keller Laboratories’ “Blueprint for Success.”

After Rupert called us back to accept the treatment plan, all records were forwarded to the laboratory for mounting, diagnostic case wax-up, and temporary bridge putty matrix. We decided to restore first bicuspid to first bicuspid of both arches in phase one of the rehabilitation.

At Rupert’s second appointment, approximately four weeks after the initial exam, we completed tooth preparation and temporization of Teeth Nos. 5 through 12, and 21 through 28. It was during this treatment phase that I realized we had excellent moisture control with margins at or slightly “above” the gingival crest on all preparations. Photographs and study models of both temporized arches were taken to facilitate laboratory communications.

After discussing materials selection with Keller Laboratory, I decided to restore the case using Ivoclar Empress restorations. I was confident that with moisture control at the seating appointment, Empress would provide optimal esthetics and predictable strength for this segment of the rehabilitation.

Approximately three weeks after temporization, we inserted the 16 Empress units.

Soon we will begin the posterior phase of the rehabilitation. An implant consult is planned for the missing molars.

What was it about Rupert that you liked when you watched “Survivor”?

For me, he was easily the most likable character on the show. He energized every episode and was fun to watch. Rupert also had an “everyman” personality that was easy to connect with ... he was strong in physical challenges but very vulnerable in the interpersonal relationships. And he always seemed to want to bring out the best in people.

What were your thoughts and reaction when Rupert walked into your practice?

My entire staff was really charged with anticipation on that day and not quite sure what to expect - a white limo with an entourage of handlers, or the “everyman” we all loved on the show. When he walked into the office in his signature tie-dyed T-shirt and jeans, it was all pretty bizarre. He looked and acted exactly like he did on the show. And we loved it!

What were some of the reactions of your patients when they saw Rupert?

Those who knew him from “Survivor” were immediately surprised and excited to meet him. Of course they all wanted autographs and asked us to take their picture with Rupert for a keepsake. He obliged every request. The really interesting thing about Rupert is that he is so upbeat and positively energizing that even patients who didn’t know him were drawn to him. I knew immediately he would be the “celebrity” that would make our planned Patient Appreciation Day a success beyond expectations.

Would you ever want to be on “Survivor”? If so, what would be the one thing you’d take with you?

To be honest, no thanks. I’m really not an outdoors person so the survival part of the show has no appeal to me. Eating worms and native grasses isn’t high on my list of “things to do.” If I had to go, I’d be sure to bring a toothbrush.

Up Close with Rupert

What was it about Dr. Dolson that eased your mind about dental treatment?

After speaking with him by phone I was already somewhat more relaxed about having work done. He was a good listener, asked me great questions, and wasn’t talking at all about himself. But I really got more enthused when I walked into his practice. Dr. Dolson and his team welcomed me warmly, enthusiastically, and I quickly picked up on the fact that they treated every patient, and family members of patients, the same way. But what really sealed the deal for me was that while waiting to be seen, or while my teeth were being cleaned, I could overhear how the dental team treated everyone else in the office that day. When they spoke to patients, it was never in a critical or judgmental way. They respected everyone.

I believe a true personality is revealed by how one treats others. Dr. Dolson and his team treated me like everyone else in the office with the same enthusiasm, respect, and warmth. I heard it and saw it for myself.

How has your new smile changed your life?

Immeasurably! You really can’t imagine what a confidence-builder a great smile can be. My family, my mother, my wife, people all around me have had this uncharacteristic reaction. They say I look “younger ... happier ... really photogenic.” Me? Photogenic? You can’t imagine what a boost that is for my self-esteem.

In “Survivor,” during an on-camera interview, I talked about being insecure and having low self-confidence, especially regarding my appearance. In earlier photos you rarely see me smiling and almost never showing my teeth. During and after the show was aired, people wrote me and asked about my “dirty” smile. Why didn’t I fix my teeth? What was wrong with my teeth?

Not anymore.

Now that you’ve had your dental work, what advice would you give to other “dental-phobics” out there?

Like most patients, I am no expert on dental skills, equipment, or technology, so I wouldn’t have the slightest idea about how to tell someone to find a dentist who is painless or highly skilled. Instead, I would suggest they start a search to find a dental office that helps them to feel comfortable, relaxed, and open to talking about their concerns. Without a high level of this kind of communication, your fears just keep building. But I know how hard that first step can be.

In my case, I was lucky. My search for dental care was initiated by a call from Dr. Dolson himself. That isn’t likely to happen to most other “dental-phobics,” who must take the first step alone.

During your time on “Survivor,” did you ever have a chance to brush or floss ... or was that even a concern?

Oh yeah, it was a concern! But so were a shower, dry clothes, and warm bed. With no toothbrush, toothpaste, or floss, I had to make do with what I could find. Beach sand became my dental “paste” and my fat index finger was my only brush. Grass and leaves occasionally served as floss, but more often than not they tore between my teeth and created more problems. I eventually became pretty good at just picking with my long fingernails. It wasn’t a pretty sight, and I’m sure my jungle breath would have repulsed anybody.

How has “Survivor” changed your life?

For more than 20 years I have worked with the juvenile court system trying to help mentor teens. Many of these kids have never had the benefit of parents or caring guardians. They’ve basically been raised by the state.

After “Survivor,” I was lucky to have a national platform from which I could tell my story of these gentle kids in hard situations. People and institutions that at first approached me about public appearances and celebrity endorsements became my partners in helping these kids. With more private and corporate funding from fans and sponsors, I have been able to expand my outreach programs to help empower young people through mentoring and job training programs. I have been all over the country working with similar organizations as mine to help raise the awareness level and contributions to programs for these kids. I’ve even been asked to help set up similar programs for disadvantaged youth in foreign countries.

I would never have dreamed that my appearance on that show could have such an impact on my life.

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