Joanne Savage (pictured here) lives life with exuberance, greeting visitors to her Ellensburg home with hugs, delightedly demonstrating Michael Jackson's "moon walk" and laughing out loud as she sings and claps along to "Thank God I'm A Country Boy." There's no mistaking the sunshine in her smile - frequent, infectious, and served up with unabashed enthusiasm.
Credit Dr. Mark Siks, an Ellensburg dentist, and an innovative dental program at KVH Hospital for keeping that smile healthy.
The 56-year-old Savage, who is developmentally disabled, is her own guardian and lives independently with the help of caregivers. But sitting in a dentist chair to have treatment stresses her ability to handle anxiety.
Enter Siks. Eleven years ago he began offering disabled, high anxiety and other special needs patients dental services under general anesthesia at KVH Hospital. It's a way of providing dental care to patients who need it but otherwise might not be able to get it and it allows him to more treatment in one fell swoop.
"We're not trying to do heroics," he says. "We're trying to get special needs people with dental needs as stable as possible for the long term and hopefully not have to see them again for two or three years."
Savage, one of the higher functioning patients he sees, "was just a joy to be around," he says. Not every case is so upbeat.
"It's kind of heart wrenching when you see some of these cases. I see a whole range of autistic kids, from mild to severe. There are people who are non-verbal or who are non-verbal and blind."
For Siks, serving them became a mission.
Raised on the west side, Siks spent summers with his grandmother in Thorp and fell in love with Kittitas County. An avid mountaineer, he traveled the world after dental school, then spent four and a half years practicing in Switzerland before opening his practice in Ellensburg in 1986.
A decade or so later while continuing his general practice, Siks began helping a cousin in Tacoma who was a children's dentist at Mary Bridge Children's Hospital. "At 16, these patients' benefits stopped. They still had a need so I treated them anyway. I developed a niche practice of treating older kids and adolescents with severe disability," says Siks, who also had privileges at Tacoma General where he treated disabled adults.
"One of the dentists here in town had a patient, a young man who was a quadriplegic," Siks says. "His parents had no resources but he needed dental treatment that could only be done in a hospital setting." The family's efforts to find help had gone nowhere. "We got him over to Tacoma," Siks says. "These people didn't have money and it's very hard to transport an adult disabled like this. They had to get a van to get him here, then rent a hotel room. He was seen at Tacoma General, then sent back home."
A month later the man and his parents had to repeat the trip so that he could be treated. It got Siks thinking: Why not something closer?
He approached KVH about becoming credentialed. "It took about a year. They'd never had a dentist on staff," says Siks who sold his general practice two years ago but continues to operate his hospital practice one day each month. That's scheduled to end in June when Siks heads into full retirement. He hopes to see another dentist take over the KVH dental program. "There's definite need," says Siks who has treated patients at KVH from as far away as Mount Vernon. "It needs to continue."