The Tooth Fairy Makes House Calls
Dr. Corine Barone reassures young patients with fun, animals and her wings.
It was career night at the Tufts University School of Dentistry. Serious third-year students gathered in an auditorium to learn about the various dental specialties from those who practice dentistry.
Dr. Corine Barone was invited to talk about her specialty – pediatric dentistry.
"A forum like that can be so boring," she said. To liven up the evening, she appeared on stage dressed as she often does, with her patients at her office on Humphrey Street in Marblehead – as the Tooth Fairy.
Dressed in a flowing white dress, she sat waiting for her turn to speak with large wings velcro-ed to her dress. It broke the ice. The students and speakers took themselves a bit less seriously. And Barone made her point before she even started speaking.
As the tooth fairy, she is not a threatening figure to patients. "Nobody dislikes the Tooth Fairy," she said.
Building trust with her young patients is the serious business that Barone is engaged in. She can only fix teeth and teach good oral hygiene if the young patients relax from their anxieties. So every aspect of her office, including her own attire, is designed to make the young patients enjoy the experience.
The reception area has a Brush and Floss room that looks like a fun house with curved mirrors, small chairs and toys. A large KDZPace game stands in the corner, looking like something out of a 1950s science fiction movie. Signs say "Join the Party." A train rolls around a track on the ceiling. And a monkey poster reads "So Many Teeth. So Little Time."
Barone has loved animals since she was a child growing up on Long Island, NY. And knowing that children love small animals, she wanted to have a petting zoo in the office. But that did not work out. She has them at home – a horse, a pair of Alpacas and a bunny. The zoo didn't work out in her home in Old Town either, so she and her husband, Dr. Michael Cognata, an orthodontist who shares the office with her, moved to a small farm.
"The children know they can come play with the animals any time," she said.
But as important as the toys, the bright colors and the animals are for getting the children to relax, it is Barone herself that is the focal point of the experience for children. With rapid-fire, usually humorous banter, she keeps the children distracted and reassured.
"Most of our children can't wait to come back," she said.
One of the best compliments she has ever received was from a mother who stopped her after yoga class to say that her child told her he couldn't wait to have another cavity because he wanted to come back to the dentist.
Barone's Tooth Fairy persona was born in San Francisco when she and a girlfriend were looking for a Halloween costume. Her friend found a second-hand bridesmaid dress. Barone tried it on and said, "I think I should be the Tooth Fairy."
The average age of her patients is four, but she treats children until they graduate from high school and a few special patients come back from college to have her repair their teeth.
Big on giving rewards for good behavior, Barone presents her graduating patients a small rubber doll, named Ben D. Ploma, and a Dr. Seuss' Book, "All the Places You Will Go."
Some of her patients come from other dentists because they have too many behavioral issues to be treated. The children, frightened and angry at the dentist, are disarmed by Barone with fun and reassurances.
"When you show an X-ray to most dentists, they will start immediately to repair the worst tooth," she said, noting that it may require the most invasive treatment. Barone said that is often the wrong approach to a frightened child.
She may not work on any teeth during the first visit, building trust with the young patient and the parents by telling them what to expect on future visits.
"We are born with two fears," she said. "Loud noises and the unknown."
Barone and her staff work hard to eliminate noises, and she spends a lot of time talking to the patient.
Barone is also on staff at the Children's Hospital Boston and the Harvard School of Dental Medicine. She spends a lot of time reaching out to children – not always as the Tooth Fairy. She has appeared at schools to hand out toothbrushes as the Easter Bunny and as Snow White.
But it is as the Tooth Fairy that she gets the biggest reaction.
"People come up to me (when she is dressed as the Tooth Fairy) at conventions and say, 'You owe me,'" she said.
Her wings have grown so large in various new iterations that they no longer fit in a suitcase. So when she brings her wings to out-of-town conventions, she is often asked at the airport if she would like to check her wings. "That can have many meanings," she jokes.
For Barone, the fun doesn't stop at the office.
Will, a young patient, had a tooth extracted in her office recently. That night when he and his family were settling down for the evening, the doorbell rang. There stood the Tooth Fairy, bringing payment for the extracted tooth. When Will recognized Dr. Barone, the Tooth Fairy shook her head and said, "No, I am the Tooth Fairy, Dr. Barone's twin sister."