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HURRICANE, W.Va. — When Dr. Lizzie O’Dell enters her office every morning, she doesn’t encounter bland beige walls lined with dreary prints or rows of tight-lipped patients waiting their turn to be seen.

Instead she walks into a brightly lit space alive with color and energy. Cheery walls and modern decor greet her, as do young patients eager to show off their Elsa or Woody costumes.

It is a warm place, a happy place. The four words etched on one wall reinforce that: “Your smile begins here.”

For pediatric dentist Lizzie O’Dell, the smiles of children are what it is all about. It is what motivates her every day to walk into Creative Pediatric Dentistry at 3520 Teays Valley Road. It is what keeps her sunny smile lighting up the office every day.

And with February being National Children’s Dental Health month, O’Dell takes the opportunity to emphasize the importance of children’s smiles.

“We all know that teeth, in general, help us eat and speak and allow our jaws to function properly,” O’Dell said. “But I think some people assume that baby teeth aren’t important because they aren’t permanent. That is a false assumption. Baby teeth help a growing child obtain the proper nutrition, form speech sounds properly, and guide the permanent teeth into place. Baby teeth can decay, feel pain, and experience infection or dental abscess just like permanent teeth.”

So a child’s smile truly does begin “here,” in the first years of life, under the care of a pediatric dentist like Dr. Lizzie.

O’Dell first discovered that she had a knack for helping children with their smiles as a dental student at University of Alabama-Birmingham’s School of Dentistry. Along with her fellow dental students, O’Dell made the rounds, learning about all of the dental specialties.

It was during a routine procedure that she found her calling.

“The procedure was on a little girl and the child was anxious,” O’Dell said, “so I started by building trust with her. I took my time and talked her through every step of the simple procedure, and she was so thankful for that. She and I both got through the appointment without tears.”

O’Dell’s passion became helping children with their smiles. She went through pediatric dental training at the University of Illinois at Chicago. From there she moved to Hurricane, where her husband Matt was building an orthodontia practice.

And in March 2016, she opened the doors of her own practice.

Since then she has not stopped advocating for the smiles of children in our area. O’Dell speaks to dental groups about issues in pediatric dentistry and is a staunch advocate for special needs children and for Autism CARES. She supports the mandatory dental exam required in West Virginia prior to school entry.

Rewarding her efforts, Incisal Edge named O’Dell a “Top 40 under 40” dentist in the United States in 2019.

All the while, her focus has remained on children’s dental health.

“Building trust and relationships with my patients is what I love most about being a pediatric dentist,” she said. “It is so satisfying to see a child progress from being scared and anxious about coming to the dentist to being confident and secure. When they greet me with a hearty smile, plop down in the chair, and open their mouths wide, it makes me so happy.”

Of course, it takes some children longer than others to acquire that sense of ease in the dentist’s chair. Some children come to Dr. Lizzie with previous medical experiences that have scarred them.

“It is easier to build trust than it is to reverse a previous traumatic experience,” O’Dell admits. “Those situations are definitely challenging but can be overcome.”

COVID-19 brought its own set of challenges to children’s dental health over the past year.

“Many children experienced a major disruption to their normal routine because of the pandemic,” O’Dell explains. “On a normal day, kids wake up, eat breakfast, brush their teeth, go to school, come home, do homework, eat dinner, take a bath, and end the day by brushing their teeth again. Staying at home and doing virtual schooling became the new routine for awhile and, unfortunately, this led to children snacking more frequently and not practicing good oral hygiene.”

Complicating the situation was the fact that dentist offices throughout Putnam County were closed for a significant period of time.

“I personally shut down our office for six weeks,” O’Dell says. “Children who were scheduled during that time were rescheduled anywhere from 6-8 months past their routine visit.”

She adds, “Regular check-ups every six months with your dentist are extremely important because that is how long it can take for a cavity to develop. Some kids even qualify for exams every three months if their cavity risk is high.”

Despite the fact that COVID has been a setback for children’s dental health overall, O’Dell encourages parents to prioritize again their children’s smiles by sticking to a daily routine; offering healthy snack options like cheese, whole grains and nuts; and by frequent brushing and flossing.

“Brushing and flossing at bedtime is most important,” O’Dell said. “Hang in there! Try to get in with your local dentist if you have had to postpone your child’s cleaning.”

There is one other thing that lights up Dr. Lizzie O’Dell’s office every day, besides the bright lights and colorful walls.

“Children’s smiles,” O’Dell said. “You gotta love those smiles.”

For more information about National Children’s Dental Health Month, see the American Dental Association’s website (www.ada.org). If you would like more information about Creative Pediatric Dentistry, check out the website at www.creativekidsdental.com.

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