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Dr. Phelan Thomas crafts ideal smiles


Dr. Phelan Thomas laughs frequently, displaying his even, white teeth as he zips through his office, pointing out the photographs of patients in the lobby, an alcove where he snaps patient photographs, the dentist chair where he does his work, and a shelf-lined room full of countless sets of plaster smiles.

Thomas is the driving force behind the Iowa Center for Cosmetic Dentistry in West Des Moines. He says his patients most commonly want to fix crooked teeth or to eliminate stains on or spaces between their teeth. Depending on the condition of the patient and the effect he or she desires, the prices for treatment range from $7,000 to $30,000. Some procedures require two appointments to complete, with six or seven hours in the dentist’s chair for the first appointment and two or three hours for the second.

Thomas strives to put his patients at ease as he works on them. The dentist’s chair features a heated massage pad, and patients can listen to music or watch television or a DVD. In fact, Thomas has virtual-reality glasses his patients can wear to watch movies while they recline.

Attaining an ideal set of pearly whites involves a long and detailed process. Thomas consults with the patient, takes photographs from several angles, and maps out the patient’s teeth on graph paper. He examines the placement and proportion of the teeth, then sketches the changes necessary to achieve what he calls “the look.”

A mold is taken of the patient’s mouth using tools that mark the precise position of the teeth and the angle at which they are oriented in the patient’s head. Using a model cast from the mold, Thomas shapes the prototype of the new set of choppers. He then puts it in an articulator, a mechanical model of the human jaw. The top and bottom sets of teeth are then moved on the articulator in the ways that the jaw moves teeth to ensure that the result of the procedure will be functional as well as attractive.

“A lot of dentists skip that step because it’s time consuming,” Thomas said. He maintains that taking extra time in planning means less time spent correcting problems after the fact. Then the teeth are altered using such solutions as braces, veneers or crowns.

Thomas decided to go into dentistry when he was a 10-year-old boy growing up in St. Louis. He spent a lot of time as the local boys’ club, which had its own dental clinic. Dental students would come and take care of the boys’ teeth as part of their classwork, and Thomas began running errands for them. By the time he was 13, he had already purchase his first textbook on dentistry. In high school he enjoyed commercial art, and he says that contributed to his “natural progression” into cosmetic dentistry.

“Most of your better cosmetic dentists have an art background of some kind,” he said. “It’s taken me a while to be able to develop an eye, to see the situation and where it’s going to end up.”

In 1986 Thomas first came to Des Moines as an adjunct professor for the University of Iowa through Broadlawns Medical Center. He quickly worked through his misconceptions about Iowa and grew to love the state, and Des Moines in particular, calling the city “peaceful and clean” and its citizens approachable. Those factors help keep him here, despite the fact that cosmetic dentists in major cities can charge twice as much money for the same procedures he performs.

Thomas’ next goal is to become accredited by the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, which requires taking classes, submitting five presentations of perfect cases he’s done and taking an oral examination. Only 240 of the academy’s 5,000 members are accredited. Another step toward his goal was attending a class the weekend of Oct. 18 with legendary gum specialist Dr. John Kois. Thomas also hopes to someday teach the science and art of cosmetic dentistry to others.

“I love what I’m doing so much I’d like to spread the knowledge,” he said.


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