Andy Alas is a different kind of dentist. He gives you something to smile about before he goes to work fussing over your cavities and your failure to floss.
There on the walls of his La Verne practice are handsomely framed photos of him with former first lady Barbara Bush, Barbara Eden (“I Dream of Jeanie”), Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner and the gyrating Chubby Checker, inventor of the “Twist.” A check in his vast library of photos will show he’s met every U.S. president from Nixon through Clinton.
For anxious patients, looking at fun celebrity photos sure beats thumbing though old issues of Prevention, Family Circle and Good Housekeeping magazines, the usual stock and trade of most dental offices.
Dr. Alas’ gallery of stars numbers in the hundreds. It is so extensive in fact that he has to regularly rotate the photos.
What’s his secret to gaining access to so many celebrities? Was he a former bodyguard, CIA operative or Secret Service agent before becoming a dentist? It’s really no mystery at all. After dental school, the erudite doctor began attending books signings, first just a few, then a flood.
Now, he and wife Cindy attend some 30 or 40 a year.
“It’s a passion,” Alas said, with a photo of the “Happy Days” cast nearby.
Passion is probably too mild a word to describe his obsession. He once flew to London for a book signing. Another time, he waited in line 14 hours to have Hillary Clinton sign a book. He had waited in line so long he practically finished her tome by the time she signed it.
His biggest “get” or thrill, however, was when he met Margaret Thatcher, former English prime minister, at the now defunct Brentano’s book store in West L.A.
“The Secret Service was there, Scotland Yard was there and the L.A. County Sheriff’s was there,” Alas recalled.
Alas is hardly your average celebrity-chasing dentist, though. He actually sits on the board of the Universal Autograph Collectors Club (http://www.uacc.org/), which has been around since 1965. It is the largest autograph organization in the world with members in more than 20 countries. The nonprofit organizes signings for Apollo astronauts and other luminaries.
“The thrill for me,” Alas added, “is I get to meet people that I would normally not get the chance to meet. Where else am I going to meet Barbara Bush or Margaret Thatcher?”
He’s right because Tuesday through Friday, he’s amiably ensconced in his office, improving the dental hygiene and oral health of his patients, arresting gum disease and providing extractions, fillings, bridges, crowns, implants, partial and full dentures, root canals and other dental services. Part of his practice is dedicated to cosmetic dentistry, improving smiles with teeth-whitening trays, porcelain veneers and other aesthetic enhancements.
Dentistry, his patients quickly discover, is indeed his primary passion.
After graduating with a degree in chemistry at Cal Poly, Pomona, a university he absolutely adored, he headed off to UCLA dental school for four years before passing his boards and earning his doctorate of dental surgery or DDS. After working as an associate and then as the owner of his own practice, he purchased his current La Verne practice in December of 2004.
Interestingly, for 11 years in addition to his dental practice, he worked as a state dental board examiner, administering the four-day dental exam to hundreds of aspiring dentists.
“That was great,” Alas, fondly recalled. “Five years previously I was taking the exam and five years later, I was giving the exam.” Test-takers have to score 75% or higher to pass their boards. They can fail one of the exams, but often that one sub-standard score sinks their average below the 75% threshold.
“The tests are extremely fair,” Alas said. Examiners never actually see the would-be dentist. “As the grading examiner, you have no idea who the dentist was, where they came from, what they looked like or anything. You just see the patient.”
The examiners don’t get much feedback from the patients, either. “They’re usually numb, so they are not going to be too talkative,” Alas noted.
For the most part, Alas’ patients are very talkative. Mostly, they’re curious about the doctor’s growing family. In January of 2010, he and Cindy adopted Nicole, a 10-month-old baby girl from China, an adoption process spanning almost five years. A bulging three-ring binder filled with documents chronicles that long bureaucratic process.
For years, patients followed their dentist’s painstaking progress and were delighted to learn he was finally bringing the precious Nicole back home to the states. They sent cards and brought gifts. “It was amazing and very heart-warming,” Alas said about the outpouring of affection from his patients.
Indeed, Alas has that special bond with many of his patients. He’s attended their weddings, graduations and other celebrations. “As you share things, hobbies, interests and things going on in your life, then people share with you,” Alas said.
When patients learned that he was adopting a baby girl, some of his patients shared they had been adopted or had adopted children of their own. Added Alas, “We were blown away by the number of people who told us, ‘You know, I was adopted.’ It was mind-blowing.”
Usually, when Dr. Alas is asking his patients to open their mouths a little wider, it’s not to invite extra communication, but to finally hunker down to work. And the work and line of patients never seems to cease, many due to unpredictable events.
Although Dr. Alas’ official office hours are Tuesday through Friday, he’s come in many weekends and late nights, often with only his wife at his side, to help patients in sudden distress. “I’d like to think I’ve seen everything, but every once in a while something surprises you,” he said. In the middle of the night, he’s raced to his office from his Chino Hills home to help motorcyclists, baseball players, and skateboarders who have had teeth knocked out.
“One thing I’ve learned is that cheerleaders like to throw other cheerleaders in the air,” Alas said. “The problem is when you catch them with your elbows instead of your hands.”
Patients can see him less often if only they report for regular check-ups (twice a year is still the norm unless the patient has gum disease) and practice a little more common sense.
“Don’t chew ice,” Alas warned. He also advised that tongue-piercers substitute plastic balls instead of chrome balls. He doesn’t recommend the practice, but realizes the piercing and tattoo craze isn’t leaving the popular culture any time soon. “That metal ball thrashes all around; it’s great for breaking teeth,” he said.
Whatever the procedure, Dr. Alas has a great clerical and medical staff assisting him. They include Lisa who handles the front desk and Lydia, an extended function dental assistant, a designation that allows her to perform many procedures beyond the pale of a regular assistant. She is one of only about 50 in the state. Several hygienists, many with young families, also work part-time in the office.
Dr. Alas’ practice is family dentistry practiced at its best. His patients are well cared for and frequently entertained. To many of his patients, he’s a hero.
They just might ask for his autograph, or he might ask them for theirs.
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