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Fleckenstein earns community award

Citizen award
Mar. 31, 2013 @ 11:30 PM

HUNTINGTON -- With two canes and what his wife calls a dose of German stubbornness, Leo Fleckenstein is beating a virus that he refers to as "the little sucker."

The prospect of not being able to walk spurred a drive within Fleckenstein for the exact opposite. The 80-year-old has pushed through years of rehabilitation and therapy with a dual focus set upon enjoying life and helping others.

Faced with idly sitting at home in the early 2000s, the longtime dentist accepted a friend's invitation to visit Ebenezer Medical Outreach, where organizers considered adding a dental clinic.

Fleckenstein instantly spotted numerous obstacles and challenges, but he also caught the broader vision and became the driving force behind Ebenezer's dental clinic. His many hours spent equipping, funding and staffing the facility were the driving force behind The Herald-Dispatch selecting him as its recipient of the 2012 Zack Binkley Award for Community Service.

It represents another honor for Fleckenstein, whose bedroom desk is surrounded with awards recognizing his distinguished career of success and accomplishment.

"If you do anything like this and you want the recognition of it, you're not doing it in good faith," he said recently while unaware of this week's award. "I did it because I like dentistry."

The dental clinic also stands as a symbol of Fleckenstein's compassion, according to Dallas L. Nibert, a Huntington dentist who nominated Fleckenstein for the Binkley award.

"Without him, the Dental Clinic at Ebenezer would be nonexistent, as he is the heart behind it all," Nibert wrote in his nomination letter.

Ebenezer treats the working uninsured from eight Tri-State counties. Now located at the Douglass Centre along 10th Avenue, the medical clinic first opened at another spot in 1986. The dental clinic followed in January 2005 as organizers searched for ways to meet their patients' unfilled needs.

The dental unit has treated hundreds of patients. Many have arrived with poor dental histories, which require extensive, restorative work to their mouths at no cost. Service peaked early on, but has slowed since to an average of 20 patients per month, said Yvonne Jones, executive director of Ebenezer Medical Outreach.

In a recent letter highlighting his contributions, Jones credited Fleckenstein with impacting the lives of hundreds in the region.

"He was worked tirelessly," she wrote. "Without Dr. Fleckenstein, the low-income, uninsured patients of Ebenezer Medical Outreach would not have access to any dental care at all."

Opening such a clinic wasn't Fleckenstein's initial vision for retirement.

The Huntington native, who studied at Xavier and St. Louis universities before serving as a dentist in the U.S. Navy, purchased a local dental practice in the early 1960s. He bought it for $22,000 and had such success that it sold in 2001 for nearly $200,000, less than it might have been worth.

Fleckenstein, then 67, first contemplated selling his practice believing he had reached the age to do so. He and his wife, Betty Lou, had put their five boys through school and then eyed the luxuries of free time and travel.

But within six months, everything came to a halt.

Fleckenstein had fallen ill.

Physicians at The John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore would diagnose him with transverse myelitis, a neurological disorder that doctors told Fleckenstein affects three in a million people.

The National Institutes of Health said the disorder often develops following a viral infection. Inflammation develops across both sides of the patient's spinal cord. It can destroy the fatty, insulating substance that covers nerve cell fibers and damages the nervous system, which then interrupts communication between nerves in the spinal cord and the rest of the body.

The disorder attacked the middle part of Fleckenstein's spine and left him partially paralyzed from the waist down. He had hoped to briefly work alongside his successor at his practice, but that opportunity was gone. He closed the deal while lying in a bed at the hospital.

"All I wanted to do was go to exercise and try to get better," he said.

Fleckenstein eventually returned to Huntington, continued rehabilitation and in 2002 accompanied a friend to visit Ebenezer. She had heard of the organization's desire for a dental clinic and invited Fleckenstein to tag along.

Having just relocated to the Douglass Centre, organizers pointed to a room that he immediately knew was too small. That led them to an empty room on the building's third floor. It was just the right size -- but it was an empty room.

With no money and no equipment, Fleckenstein went to work. He secured the donation of some equipment locally, but passed on other hand-me-downs believing that a quality dental clinic deserved quality equipment. That prompted a cross-country effort to bring the necessary equipment to Huntington.

All of that work paid off with the clinic's opening in 2005.

"Because of Dr. Fleckenstein, we got a dental clinic valued at over $100,000 for less than $10,000," Jones wrote. "Literally, hundreds of people have benefited from his tenacity. Dr. Fleckenstein does not take no for an answer. When he sets his mind to something, he does not give up until it is accomplished."

Getting the equipment was only half of the battle.

He also needed dentists.

Nibert's nomination letter credits Fleckenstein with leading a continued recruitment drive to attract other dentists and hygienists. The clinic also became the home mission of the Huntington Dental Society, an organization for which he once served as president.

"He not only donated an abundance of his own time, but also leads and inspires others to give their time as well," Nibert wrote. "Dr. Fleckenstein possesses a special ability to not only lead, but to lead others to greatness."

Fleckenstein's never-ending drive for perfection is another side of his character, noted both his wife and Nibert. It fueled his initial push for quality equipment and today causes him to yearn for better participation among dentists. He particularly focuses upon retired dentists, as well as pushing for Ebenezer's approval as the site for a loan forgiveness program for dental students.

"That's very difficult and discouraging, too," he said of low participation. "The demand is so much bigger than what we're able to take on."

Fleckenstein's wife, Betty Lou, said the dental clinic became his passion in the face of disability. She credited his faith in leading him to recognize God's will in placing him at the clinic. He grew more inspired as more things fell into place, such as a larger room and the necessary equipment.

She said the push for more volunteers symbolizes his passion hasn't died.

"Whether it's dentistry, working in the yard or whatever he did -- he did it top notch," she said. "He does the same thing with these patients as he would have done in his general practice. He wants everything up to par."

It's that determination that continues to drive Fleckenstein to enjoy life to its fullest. He mentioned his balding head, recognizing it keeps him honest about his increasing age. He also acknowledged the days of walking on two canes might eventually come to an end, but he refuses to give up, saying others are fascinated to see him walk and hear that he still drives -- albeit with hand controls.

"I fight like hell to stay out of a wheelchair," he said. "Everybody says, 'Well you'd really be more stable on a walker.' Well you would be, but you're limited in what you can do ... If I get to the point that I can't (walk), there's so many things I won't be able to, and I'm not ready to give them all up right now."

Follow Curtis Johnson via Twitter @curtisjohnsonHD and on Facebook.



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