Changing Their World
Dr. Todd Jorgenson, the official periodontist for the Phoenix Suns, takes much of his inspiration from his philosophy training in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
A Long Way from Peoa
By Matthew D. LaPlante
Todd Jorgenson has just returned from touring the new dental clinic at the Talking Stick Resort Arena in downtown Phoenix and he’s having trouble containing his enthusiasm.
“There’s this cool track that runs through the office,” he says, almost breathless with excitement. “And the offices are glass, so you can see what all the dentists and surgeons are doing — like we’re on display.” The official periodontist for the National Basketball Association’s Phoenix Suns franchise is just getting started. “There’s an aquarium running through the whole thing — an aquarium! — and the whole roof is glass!” Jorgenson has opened several restorative dental surgery centers in Arizona since he first arrived in the Valley of the Sun in 2003. He’s got another in Texas. But this one — part of a medical center that will serve NBA players, staff, families and downtowners in Arizona’s largest city — has got his blood pumping. This is a long way from Peoa, the tiny mink farming town in Utah’s Summit County where Jorgenson grew up on a small farm with five siblings and “who knows how many cows, horses, pigs, deer, elk, bobcats and wolves.” Jorgenson’s not shy about talking about his success. The Utah State University graduate is even willing to flaunt it, a bit, when there’s a reason. When he returned to Logan in April to give a guest lecture about “getting ahead,” for instance, he surprised a few fortunate students with parting gifts they won’t soon forget. “Could you use an iPad Mini?” he asked the first person who answered one of his questions. “Um...yes?” the student responded. “Here you go,” Jorgenson said, handing the student a new tablet computer — one of about a half dozen he gave out that day. A bit over the top? Consider this: The people Jorgenson was addressing were mostly students in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. And almost all of them have heard — again and again — that their education, as one state legislator put it a few years back, amounts to “a degree to nowhere,” especially when it comes to making money. Those in the humanities often counter these notions by arguing that they’re not as worried about making a difference in their pocketbooks as they are about making a difference in the world. But Jorgenson — a 1996 CHaSS graduate with an undergraduate degree in philosophy — stands as stark proof that it doesn’t need to be an either-or proposition. Foremost, Jorgenson says, the iPads were intended to get the students’ attention — “I’ve been a college student on a Friday afternoon,” he says — but he also wanted to instill in them some confidence that the liberal arts education they’re getting at Utah State can lead absolutely “anywhere”— and even to money, if that’s what they want. “A career can be extremely fulfilling, fun, mostly enjoyable, expansive and provide for your needs very well — and even help out many other people,” he says. Jorgenson has been able to do that, too — among other volunteer work, he provides free dental care and implant surgery to victims of domestic violence as part of the non-profit Give Back a Smile and offers free dental care to those who cannot afford it through a group called Dentistry from the Heart. “They come around 4 a.m., get in a line and there are about five of us in a clinic and we see patients on a first-come-first-serve basis,” Jorgenson says. “We work all day until our hands are ready to fall off.” PHILOSOPHY, THEN AND NOW C.J. Metz, a Mesa dentist who hosts the free dental care events, calls Jorgenson “brilliant.” “He worked on my own mother, my father and my sister,” Metz says. But Jorgenson says his skills as a dental implant specialist aren’t what sets him apart. “I am pretty good at my job — obviously the work has to be good or I wouldn’t have lasted long,” he says. “But there are a lot of people out there who are every bit as good as I am.” So why does his name keep winding up on all of Arizona’s “top dentist” lists? Why all the new offices? And how does someone get put on an NBA team’s medical roster? Jorgenson says it all traces back to his days as an undergraduate at Utah State. Even then he was pretty sure he’d eventually attend some sort of medical school program, but when it came time to choose a major, he says, he fell in love with the college’s tight-knit band of philosophers. Professors like Richard Sherlock and Kent Robson, he says, pushed him to consider ethics, politics, religion and the very meaning of life in ways he wouldn’t have if he’d focused on biology — the go-to undergraduate degree for many pursuing a future career in medicine. It was during his time in the department’s small discussion-based classes and one-on-one meetings with his professors, Jorgenson says, that he developed the skills that are the real secret to his success. “It’s all about connecting with people,” he says. “When you understand that a big part of this business is referrals from other docs, it’s clear why that’s important.” Jorgenson says he can talk about the latest journal articles with the best of them, “but that’s really not what most people want to talk about.” Instead, he says, they want to talk about sports, politics, religion, cars — and yes, even philosophy. “I can sit down and talk about anything with anyone,” he says. “I think that’s been the real difference maker.” Metz agrees. “When I watch him work with people, I honestly get a bit envious of his communication skills,” Metz says. It’s not unusual for specialists like Jorgenson to approach dentists like Metz to try to build relationships. Most of the time, Metz says, those relationships are based on mutual interest and backgrounds in dentistry. Those people might be good dentists and great human beings, Metz says, “but going to lunch can be painful.” When he and Jorgenson meet up, though, “we have to try to remember to talk about dentistry.” Steve Frost, an east Phoenix endodontist, says Jorgenson truly is a master of communication. “It really is apparent from the minute you meet Todd that no matter what the subject is and no matter who you are, he can be on your level in a matter of seconds,” Frost says. “Just like that, he can turn you into his biggest fan and instantly it feels like he’s your biggest fan, too. That’s a real talent he has—the ability to relate to people and understand them, not just to do dental implants.” IT'S ABOUT CONFIDENCE Of course a periodontist can’t be a periodontist without a medical education — Jorgenson got his at Oregon Health Sciences University and the Oklahoma University Health Science Center. But Jorgenson says that when he walked into a bank, before even graduating from his periodontics program and asked for a million dollars to build a new dental surgery center in Arizona, it wasn’t his medical education that made the deal. “That was all about confidence,” Jorgenson says. “And I’ve got to say that definitely came from my relationships with my philosophy professors.” Jorgenson says his undergraduate science classes were held in lecture halls with hundreds of other students. “You didn’t get to know your professors; sometimes you didn’t even get to meet them, just the TAs,” he says. “In philosophy there was this open-door policy where you could walk in and talk to these amazing people, these really brilliant people like Dr. Sherlock and Dr. Robson. These are legitimate, big-time, super smart guys. But I’d walk in, as a 20-year-old kid and be treated with respect. That builds a kid’s confidence pretty fast.” Still relatively young among his professional colleagues, Jorgenson says he’s not sure where his practice will take him next. What he does know is that the story of his success so far took an important turn at Utah State University. “I’m a fan of a broad spectrum education and of course that education needs science, too,” he says — and once again it’s clear that he’s having a hard time suppressing his excitement. “But I can’t imagine going through life without the opportunities I had to think about things in a different way. That’s huge. It’s just huge.”