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Its all in the family!

Feb. 1, 2000
The family business is dentistry, and the Dorer family has been living and breathing dentistry for more than 40 years.

The family business is dentistry, and the Dorer family has been living and breathing dentistry for more than 40 years.

Cathy Hester Seckman, RDH

Mark Mellott of Pittsburgh is as patient as he can be about the family business. Every so often, though - at a potluck dinner or holiday gathering - the graphic descriptions are more than he can take!

"Can`t we please talk about something besides dentistry?" he`ll explode.

"Poor Mark," his sister-in-law says sympathetically. "He does get frustrated."

"Yeah," his brother-in-law says enthusiastically. "Remember the time Grandma broke her denture at Thanksgiving dinner? We ran her down to the office and fixed it right then and there!"

One can see Mark`s point. His wife, Gretchen, is a hygienist. Her father is an oral surgeon. Her brother is a general dentist, her sister-in-law is a hygienist, and all four of them work in the same office! Gretchen`s late mother worked for many years as a dental assistant, and her sister-in-law`s mother also is an assistant.

Are you confused? The Dorer family would laugh and be completely understanding. After all, it isn`t every family that has lived and breathed dentistry for more than 40 years!

It all started with Dr. Walter F. Dorer, who has been an oral surgeon in Aliquippa, Pa., since 1958. His wife, Beverly, is a registered nurse who later became a dental assistant. The Dorers opened their first office less than a mile from home, and Dr. Walter has been there ever since.

"It always was so handy," he recalls. "Someone would call with a toothache, and we could meet the patient at the office in five minutes.

"My father wanted me to be a dentist, you know," he continues comfortably. "Dentistry has provided a good lifestyle for our family all these years. It`s been very good to us."

Dr. Walter enjoys being surrounded by family in the office. "It`s great!" he says. "We all help each other and we cover for each other."

The Dorers raised four children, two of whom decided to follow their parents into the family business. Gretchen is a hygienist and Kurt is a general dentist. Heidi is a computer- software designer in San Diego, and Kristin is a realtor in Philadelphia.

Gretchen and Kurt, the two oldest, worked in their father`s office as teenagers.

"I always knew I`d have a career in the health field," says Gretchen. "My mother, my grandmother, and my aunt were all nurses, so, at first, I thought I`d do that. But nurses have to work shifts and holidays, so I decided on dental hygiene instead." She earned an associate`s degree in dental hygiene from West Liberty State College near Wheeling, W.Va., and a bachelor`s degree from the University of Pittsburgh.

The Dorer family has a long history at WLSC. Both Dr. Walter and his mother, a teacher, also graduated from the college. The Catharine H. Dorer Scholarship, named for Gretchen`s grandmother, has been awarded to a hygiene student at WLSC yearly since 1997.

After college, Gretchen and her husband lived in Maryland for awhile with their son, Max, now 8. When the family moved back home to western Pennsylvania, Gretchen didn`t intend to work for her brother.

But Kurt had finished dental school by that time, graduating from the University of Pittsburgh, and was practicing in his father`s office and at his own office in Rochester, Pa.

"I didn`t really want a job," Gretchen recalls, "because I was pregnant with my daughter, Mollie, at the time. But Kurt needed a hygienist, so I said I`d come in temporarily to help out. Mollie`s 7 now, and I`m still here two days a week." She also works one day a week for a periodontist.

Gretchen believes that there are positive and negative aspects to working in a family business. "When it`s in your family, you worry more about things. You`re privy to the problems - this patient didn`t pay, that lab is giving us trouble. Anything that goes wrong makes me worry. I almost feel like it`s my practice, too. I try to be treated like an employee, but I think I have a stronger influence on Kurt."

One positive aspect is knowing so many of the patients. "I grew up in Aliquippa, and I started working in my dad`s office in the eighth grade," Gretchen continues. "Some of the patients are just like family."

Kurt enjoys having a sister on hand. "It`s been good, working with Gretchen, because I get to see her all the time. We go to Grandma`s on Tuesdays for lunch, and sometimes we go shopping together on Wednesdays. It`s nice! We don`t see our other sisters as often.

"I appreciate her experience, too, in a professional way. I can ask her for advice."

Gretchen laughs at that. "When I first started here, I worried about him. I mean, he`s my little brother! I couldn`t see him as a dentist, at first. I`d hear him talking to a patient about a root canal or something, and I`d take him aside and say, `Wait a minute. Molar endo? Are you sure you can do that?` "

Gretchen calls both Kurt and her father "Dr. Dorer" in front of the patients, because not everyone knows about the relationships.

"Some of the newer patients might be embarrassed if they knew," Kurt says, "because they occasionally make comments to me like, `Hey, your hygienist pulled out my filling,` or `Boy, that hygienist is rough!` "

Patients who are not in the know might be even more surprised to learn that the office`s other hygienist is Kurt`s wife, M.J.

The first member of the Dorer family that M.J. met was Gretchen. Both were in the same sorority at WLSC, and they rode back and forth to school together. M.J. was influenced in her career choice by her mother, Mary Jane Seidel of Ellwood City, Pa. Mary Jane worked as an assistant for a family dentist in the `40s and `50s - the days before licensing and duty definitions for assistants.

"I did everything," she recalls, "from ortho to vulcanizing dentures. I finished my career the same day I delivered my first baby in 1956. Because of my background, oral hygiene was very much stressed in our home. My children felt like they brushed their teeth a hundred times a day."

When M.J. finished her bachelor`s degree and began working, she joined a group of dentists and hygienists in Beaver County who met for dinner on Wednesday nights. That`s where she first met Gretchen`s brother.

"I got a job with Kurt," she says, smiling. "I was dating someone else at the time, but even he told me that I was going to marry Kurt someday. He was right."

M.J. and Kurt live in Ellwood City with their children, Emily, 7; Oliver, 3; and Abigail, 2. Besides working for her husband, M.J. also worked seven years as a sales representative for Colgate-Palmolive. She gave that up after Abigail was born, and now just does fill-in work.

"M.J. has the toughest role," Kurt believes, "because she`s the person we count on. If the assistant is sick, or the receptionist has to have surgery, or Gretchen needs the day off, we call on M.J. She?s really good about it.O

In an office filled with parents, siblings, and in-laws, it might be tough for an outsider to work there. OI?m not sure whether it is or not,O Kurt admits. OI used to feel funny doing staff interviews, and saying, OBy the way, the office staff will include me, my dad, my mom, my sister, my wife ? and you.? I?d wonder how the person would feel, knowing that.O

Debbie Lasko, the assistant for the office, laughs when asked that question. OI?ve been here five years. Some mornings, I wake up and think it?s a good thing and some mornings, it?s definitely a bad thing. But mostly, it?s OK.O

Lasko knew both Kurt and Gretchen in high school, and had been a patient at the office before working there. OI never feel like an outsider,O she says with a laugh. OI know more about this family than I care to, sometimes.O

ODebbie?s job,O Kurt puts in, Ois to hold the office together.O

OOh,O she replies, Oyou guys do love me, don?t you?O

Cathy Hester Seckman, RDH, is a frequent contributor to RDH. She is based in Calcutta, Ohio.

Click here to enlarge image

A dental family portrait: pictured are, from left to right, standing, M. J. Dorer, RDH; Kurt Dorer, DDS; Gretchen Mellott, RDH; Walter Dorer, DDS; and seated, Mary Jane Seidel, D.A.