Take one look at Irene Blaess, and you see a pretty woman with a bright smile. She’s got a lot to be happy about, with two thriving dental practices. What you don’t see is her acute fear of dentists.
“You're not getting older, you're getting better.” You've heard that one, right?
“The sound of the drill still scares me,” she says. “I was born in Russia, and going to the dentist there is very different,” she explains. “I had a traumatic experience as a young girl C9 I was strapped into something like a papoose so that I couldn’t struggle. They used forceps to keep my mouth open, and an assistant held my head still. There was no anesthesia, so you feel everything. I’m still a phobic patient because of that.”
It sounds like something from the Middle Ages, but Dr. Blaess is only 32 years old. Her family emigrated from Moscow to Houston in the early 1980s. She entered the University of Texas as a pre-med student and quickly realized medicine was not what she wanted to do. Her father suggested that she look into dentistry, which she flatly opposed. “I hated the smells, the sounds, anything associated with the dentist,” she explains.
Fate intervened, though, when a friend asked Dr. Blaess to accompany her to an informational meeting for the university’s pre-dental program. She went with no intention other than to accompany her friend, but what she learned at the meeting changed her mind. “What’s funny is that my friend never made it to dental school; I think she became an accountant,” Dr. Blaess says, laughing.
In 1997, at age 23, Dr. Blaess became the youngest graduate in the history of UT’s Dental School. She opened her first practice, DeZavala Dental, in 1999. With its focus on general dentistry, it attracts patients of all ages. In 2004, she and a partner opened Northwoods Dental Spa. The dental spa idea was new to San Antonio, but Dr. Blaess had seen “spa” practices emerge in other cities and believed it would work here too.
The concept blends the typical dental visit with aesthetic treatments that improve the patient’s smile plus services such as massage and facials that pamper and relax the rest of the body. It may sound like an odd combination, but Dr. Blaess points out a key connection: “Massage releases endorphins into the body, which relax the patient for the dental exam.” The relaxation results in patients needing less sedating medication in many instances. “It improves the experience for anyone, but it really helps our phobic patients,” she says.
The services also target multitasking parents who see the beauty in getting a facial while waiting for the kids to finish their visit to the dentist. “This is for the woman who doesn’t have time to take the kids to the dentist and get a facial,” she says. “What we’re offering is balance and comfort. The result is that patients visit more often, and not just when they have a problem or they’re in pain.”
The increase in routine visits, Dr. Blaess says, has multiple benefits. “Going to the dentist twice a year is not expensive and painful, compared to decay and neglect,” she says. Frequent visits also open the door to dialogue about procedures the patient may have been avoiding, and the variety of elective and cosmetic options. “The technology has changed so much,” she says. “What was done 20 years ago isn’t how it’s done today. Being able to tell patients about new treatments during routine visits is less threatening. They have a chance to ask questions and get comfortable with having the work done.”
Running two separate practices has its challenges, but Dr. Blaess says it illustrates the importance of having a team that’s better than good: “My team is great at what they do, and I respect their expertise, but I also like them as individuals and as friends. For most of us, work is where we develop most of our personal friendships. It’s no different here.” Away from work, she spends time with 5-year-old son, Michael. “I’m a single mom, and I just love spending time with my son,” she says. “He’s still at that age where there’s no woman prettier than his mom, and I think for most of us, nothing can top that.”
I like to think I'm getting better with age, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I'm just getting ... well, older. And I don't like it very much.
They say white teeth are a sign of youth, so — to my long-suffering husband's chagrin — I trotted off to Northwoods Dental Spa and spent 60 minutes watching a movie with a bleaching light aimed at my mouth. I figured it was a small price to pay for turning back the hands of time.
I left the dental office with whiter teeth, and, believe it or not, softer hands and a freshly buffed and scrubbed face. It turns out that Dr. Irene Blaess and her partner, Dr. Stan Zebrowski, have an interesting business model at U.S. 281 North and Loop 1604: They've combined a full-service dental office with spa services such as paraffin hand treatments, facials, hot stone therapy, eyebrow waxing, body wraps and Botox.
Blaess, who first blended dental treatments with spa services in late 2004 after reading about similar business strategies on the Internet, said the spa treatments take the edge off of a visit to the dentist.
“Let's face it, there's a fear factor associated with dental work,” she said. “We've created a nice, calm atmosphere and an intimate setting.”
You might think that Blaess' patients are overwhelmingly women, but you'd think wrong. Sure, women are in the majority at 65 percent, but men who come in for dental treatments are taking a shine to facials and waxings, too.
“Men won't go to a salon to get their brows done, but they'll try it here,” she said. “You'd be amazed by the number of men who use our spa services.”
Blaess, who received her degree in dentistry from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, said patients feel better about their dental work if they aren't fretting about other facial issues.
“I always ask my patients how they feel about their smile and their teeth,” she explained. “The question brings out other concerns. They'll say, ‘I wish my skin were better' or ‘I wish I didn't have these wrinkles.' That's why we treat the entire face.”
Blaess said she hasn't relied on conventional advertising to drum up business because word-of-mouth advertising is the dental spa's best promotional tool.
“Women talk about everything,” she said. “They'll have their first facial here and tell their friends about it, or a 15-year-old will come in and have her brows waxed for the first time and I'll hear her mother on the phone saying, ‘She just got her eyebrows done at the dentist's (office)!'”
Just as the Internet was the source of Blaess' idea to open a dental spa, the Web has spread the word about the burgeoning business. And perhaps the dentistry-spa combination really is diminishing patient fear.
One patient wrote on doctoroogle.com: “I have never felt more at ease at a dental office. The extras that the spa offers are amazing! I got my first facial there.” Another wrote, “I felt like I was at a health resort rather than at a dentist's office.”
Blaess, who immigrated to the United States from Russia when she was in elementary school, enjoys helping patients feel better about themselves. For example, a teenager recently visited her on prom day to have a broken orthodontic bracket repaired. She left Blaess' office with freshly mended braces, as well as newly waxed brows and professionally applied makeup, courtesy of the spa's full-time aesthetician.
Oh, and in addition to finding her dental spa idea on the Internet and relying on electronic testimonials to boost her business, Blaess found something else online: her future husband, Michael Kozlov, a California-based medical consultant whom she met on the Web.
“The Internet is an amazing and wonderful tool,” she said with, yes, a lovely, white (and youthful-looking) smile.
Ronda Templeton is a freelance writer and the founder of Templeton Davidson Communications. She may be reached at email@example.com.