At an age when many
have their feet curled up in an easy chair, dentist Elaine Berkowitz
still works on the run -- both around the world for the Army Reserve
and, in Pittsburgh between deployments and assignments, with a mobile
practice specializing in elderly and other special-needs patients.
She started dental
school at the University of Pittsburgh at age 38. Prior to that she
practiced and taught dental assisting at Pitt and in the city schools.
She decided to go to dental school because "I decided I'd be frustrated
if I didn't try it." After graduating, she went to Ohio State University
for her residency, where she confirmed her love of working with
geriatric patients. Upon graduation, she says she sent out about 50
letters to nursing homes, physicians and the like to tell them her
intention of specializing with seniors.
keeps offices at Canterbury Place, a UPMC senior community, in
Lawrenceville, and Asbury Place in Mt. Lebanon, but more often travels
with her portable equipment. She estimates she visits patients at home
about 25 percent of the time, working around the patient, wherever he or
she is most comfortable, whether it's in bed or in the kitchen. Her
patients, primarily geriatric, usually can't get out due to physical or
mental disability. "Some dentists don't want patients that don't fit the
mold. My patients don't fit the mold," Dr. Berkowitz said. "All my
adults are special needs in some way," she added. "Some [disabilities]
are mental; some are physical ... [Some are] so mentally disturbed that
dentists don't want them in their office and families don't want to take
them." But if the patient can get out, she encourages the family to
take them to a dentist. Dr. Berkowitz said no special skills are
necessary to treat her patients -- just lots of "compassion and
patience. … "You're still a general dentist, but you can't be in a
hurry. It's not how many patients you can do in a day."
love of working with the elderly dates back to her youth, when as a
volunteer she helped to feed residents of the Jewish Home and Hospital
for the Aged. She also was close to her grandfather, who lived with her
family. "It just snowballed," Dr. Berkowitz said. "Everybody knows about
me: [home] visiting nurses, hospices. They call the [Pitt] dental
school, they call the Dental Society [of Western Pennsylvania]. They
hear by word of mouth." That word of mouth has traveled internationally.
She was invited to Yokohama, Japan, to lecture about dentistry to the
Japanese Gerontology Society. She also lectured at the dental school in
Kosovo in her first deployment in the Balkan state.
Dr. Berkowitz's connection to the Army Reserve predates dental school.
She was teaching in the city schools when a colleague everyone called
"Colonel" for reasons at the time unbeknownst to her said, " 'Why don't
you join the Army?' The next thing you know I was in the Army. I was
enlisted Reserve for 13 years and then after dental school I applied to
become an officer." She began her commission as a lieutenant and worked
her way up to her current rank of lieutenant colonel.
Besides Kosovo, she
was deployed to war-torn Iraq in 2005. She also has been assigned to
the embassies in Pakistan and Kenya and was sent on MEDRETES, or Medical
Readiness Training Exercises, in Paraguay, Ecuador, Peru and Surinam.
On those exercises, she said she went to villages to treat indigent
Iraq, she twice had to run into bunkers because of mortar fire, and she
acknowledged that "everything's dangerous" in Iraq. "Flying in
helicopters is dangerous. Being in mess hall is dangerous. I was on a
relatively safe base in the middle of the desert ... [but] it was
dangerous; it was scary.”
"I don't know how to explain it," Dr. Berkowitz added. "I like the
excitement but I'm very saddened by what's going on. As for actual fear?
I've thought about things, but I don't know that I'm fearful. ... I
always feel safe when I'm with the Army."
keep extending," she said of her 36-year military career. "Sixty is
retirement age in the Army. Every two years I apply [for an extension].
This time they gave me three years." That means she's in uniform at
least until next year and, she said, "I'm going to be kicking and
screaming if they make me get out. ... I'd stay until I'm 90 if they'd
let me. I love it."
She faces no required
retirement in her other practice, traveling the city and its environs to
treat senior citizens and children with disabilities. She visits about
four nursing homes, a couple assisted living facilities, a
rehabilitation hospital and patients' homes on a regular basis. She also
does dental surgery two days a week at the Allegheny County Jail.
Dr. Berkowitz is a Squirrel Hill native who now lives in Ross, PA