Changing Smiles, Changing Lives
Dr. Tejjy Thomas uses his dental expertise to improve the function and appearance of teeth for patients in need
by Phil Gianficaro

A youngster shifts nervously in a dental examination chair, his or her mouth a tangle of crooked teeth. Tejjy M. Thomas, D.M.D., director of Center City Orthodontics in Philadelphia, leans in and uses his skilled eyes to determine the most effective approach to create the perfect smile of which the patient has dreamed.

Dr. Thomas looks at the child reassuringly, smiles warmly and says the words every patient, young and old, wants to hear: “We will correct the problem, and when we’re done, you’ll look and feel terrific.”

Oftentimes, those are merely words that practitioners are obliged to say. But in Dr. Thomas’ case, he knows firsthand how orthodontics can repair lives as well as smiles.

“I was that young person sitting in that chair—afraid to smile, with low self-esteem—hoping something could be done for me,” Dr. Thomas says. “Today in my practice, I look at them in that chair and I still see myself back then.

“My orthodontist changed my life,” he continues. “When I was done seeing him, I became a different person emotionally. That’s what I’ve never forgotten, and I remind my team every day how fortunate we are to be in a position to do that for people. We can improve their lives.”

Dr. Thomas and his warm, friendly, professionally trained staff at Center City Orthodontics are doing just that. An Ivy League-trained and dual-certified orthodontist, Dr. Thomas leads a practice specializing in providing customized, comprehensive orthodontic treatment with the latest in clinical techniques.

“We treat patients of all ages,” Dr. Thomas says. “But with children in particular, we know for a fact, and I know from my own life, we’re setting them up for success. Once kids feel good about themselves, they have a greater chance of success.”

The average cost of dental braces in the United States is $5,000, and studies estimate between 50 and 70 percent of American children will wear braces between the ages of 6 and 18. However, not all families have the means to afford correcting the smile of one child, much less those of multiple children in need of braces. Dr. Thomas and the staff at Center City Orthodontics understand the financial dilemma some families face, and he’s helping ease their strain.

For the past two years, Dr. Thomas has been a participating orthodontist in Smiles Change Lives, a national program based in Kansas City, Kan., that since 1997 has promoted and provided orthodontic treatment for children from low-income families. Dr. Thomas is among 700 orthodontic providers who donate their skills to help children in their communities.

“I’ve known about Smiles Change Lives for a while, and knew that when I started my own practice it was something I wanted to be involved in,” Dr. Thomas says. “We made a goal to treat one child every month for free—treatment from start to finish. There’s nothing we can do that is more worthwhile than helping those children.

“Smiles Change Lives does the screening process,” he continues. “They find out who in our community will benefit most from treatment. They send us the list and we choose a child. As of today, we’ve never said ‘no’ to any child.”

Dr. Thomas also goes on an annual mission trip abroad for Operation Smile, an international children’s medical organization that performs safe, effective cleft-lip and cleft-palate surgery, and delivers post-operative and ongoing medical therapies to children in low- and middle-income countries. Every three minutes in the world, a child is born with a cleft, and since 1982, Operation Smile has provided 220,000 free medical procedures to children and adults.

Being able to improve the lives of children, both at home and abroad, is a reality Dr. Thomas does not take lightly.

“In most other professions, doctors are not with their patients as much as we are with ours,” Dr. Thomas says. “These kids literally grow up in front of us. Knowing that we helped a kid who didn’t smile or talk much when he first came to us is extremely gratifying. When parents thank you for helping change their child’s life, that is very special.”

But orthodontics is not exclusive to young patients. According to a survey conducted by the American Association of Orthodontists, the number of adult patients seeking orthodontic treatment is at a historic high. In a two-year period, from 2010 to 2012, the number of adult patients (18 or older) increased 14 percent to a record high of 1.225 million. Those increased numbers are reflected in the increase of adult patients Dr. Thomas is treating at Center City Orthodontics.

“About five years ago, my patients were about one adult in 30 or 40,” Dr. Thomas says. “Now, about one in three patients is an adult. Why? Well, it’s a combination of adults who never had treatment as a kid for whatever reason, financial or otherwise, and maybe a kid who had treatment but never wore their retainer and the teeth shifted.

“We’re seeing patients who need clear braces—I have one patient, 78 years old, who has them now—and lingual braces, which are placed behind the teeth, and some who use Invisalign,” he continues. “We also see patients who have sleep apnea, and we have an appliance that helps them sleep at night. And, as with children, we see an emotional change in adults after treatment. We help them get their lives back together. And our staff gets the same satisfaction as they do with kids. We feed off them.”

Dr. Thomas received his doctorate in dental medicine from the University of Pennsylvania, where he graduated with honors. After several years of practicing as a restorative dentist, his passion for learning and interest in orthodontics moved him to return to Penn, where he’s currently an orthodontic faculty member, for post-doctoral training in orthodontics and dentofacial orthopedics.

Dr. Thomas is a member of the American Association of Orthodontists, the American Dental Association, the Society of Orthodontic Educators and the Dawson Academy of Occlusion, as well as a fellow of the World Federation of Orthodontists.

However, the group to which he’s most proud to belong is one to which he feels a kinship: the patients who sit in his dental chairs, hoping for change. This is because, as a former orthodontic patient himself, Dr. Thomas knows exactly how they feel: “I hope to make a difference in my patients’ lives the way my orthodontist made in mine.”

Center City Orthodontics
1352 South Street
Philadelphia, PA 19147

Photograph by Felicia Perretti