I was healthy by any measurements that blood tests could elicit. I remember getting a physical exam while in Dental School and the young doc commenting, ‘With your numbers and health, you are likely to live to a 100.’
I was also a runner and a pretty fair athlete from when I was a kid and played tennis and volleyball through High School and College. I remember running for hours in the Santa Monica Mountains, up and down the hills overlooking Los Angeles. It was therapy for me and probably got me through U.S.C. Dental School in the early 80’s.
Heart palpitations had been with me for years at that point but had been manageable and never really got in my way. Maybe that is why I instinctively ran – to make my heart stronger. I could run for what seemed like forever and then do it all over again two days later.
Hindsight is always 20/20
‘So how did I end up HERE?’ I thought. I ate an impeccable diet. I was in good shape. I was young. But there I was anyways sitting and fidgeting with uncontrolled heart palpitations bad enough to actually hurt and make it difficult to breathe.
My wife has a saying she likes to mention to me once in a while, ‘Denial is not a river in Egypt.’ I laugh whenever I hear this, because it says a lot about human nature and the human condition. I also says a lot about how resilient we are and how much we can – and often do – live through.
I have to admit that I was afraid of dying, as I sat in that plastic chair in the emergency room, head in my hands, staring at the polished linoleum floor under my feet. Reality, or more accurately my denial, had finally caught up to me.
Sitting in a hospital for an hour squirming while waiting for a doctor to see you can be a humbling experience. Maybe it was meant to be and part of some grand design….
Something about facing your own mortality and feeling like your body is failing you changes everything. I was only 34 for God’s sake. This couldn’t be happening to me! There was that denial thing again, because it very simply was happening.
What began to sink in was the realization that if I didn’t change something and do it quickly, I was most likely not going to see my 50th birthday. I knew instinctively that a heart attack was in my future.
Thus Began My Journey of Healing
What I can tell you is that day changed my life forever. I made up my mind that I was not going to die young if I could possibly help it. I was going to do whatever I could to figure out what was wrong with me and do whatever I needed to do to stay healthy. Dying young was just not acceptable. But if it was in my cards, I was going to do everything I could to preserve this precious life I had been given for as long as I could.
Thus began my journey. I thought I was pretty healthy as I ate an impeccable diet and was in good shape but obviously something was wrong. It was also obvious that these things were not enough by themselves.
When I say it was a blessing what happened that day, what I mean is that it made me take a look at myself and decide what was really important to me. It also made me realize what needed to change was ME!
You see by any outward measure I was successful. I had three kids, a nice house, and owned 6 dental practices. Doc, did you say that right? Do you mean 6 operatories? No, I actually owned 6 practices at one time and was the second biggest insurance provider in Silicon Valley. So, by all outward appearances, I was very successful.
When I came out of dental school, I was extremely driven and had the goal of owning the biggest network of dental offices in the San Francisco Bay area. I had two group practices, four satellite offices, doctors and specialists working for me, and at my height had a payroll of $80,000 per month!
I say all this not to brag, but because when I tell you the reason why I got sick, you will instantly see why. Yes, I was driven but it came at a cost.
And that cost was:
I remember having night sweats on Sundays while I slept knowing what awaited me when I got to work Monday morning.
I remember walking into the office every morning and the first thing out of my mouth was, ‘Who is missing today?’ Not ‘good morning’, or ‘How are you doing?’ That’s all I wanted to know, because invariably someone was out sick, or had a family emergency or had a fight with her husband, etc. The string of excuses were endless, but they determined what I would need to deal with on a daily basis and affected the success of my practices.
I also remember a dentist associate who I also considered a friend at the time trying to steal one of my practices. This literally was a shock to me and changed what I thought about dentistry as a business. If dentistry and money came between two otherwise cordial and friendly dentists, something was really wrong.
However, no matter how driven or determined I was, there were always more problems and not enough money at the end of the month. It was just not sustainable and it was my health that began to show the cracks and break down.
And so, I decided to change course mid career and take a totally different path. I began learning everything I could on the effects of dentistry on health, as I had learned through first hand experience its effect on my own health.
But where could I find the answers? I had been treated by the well known naturopathic M.D., Dr Bieler, who wrote Food is Your Best Medicine and created the famous Bieler broth recipe. But it was becoming clear that diet by itself was not enough.
I had already identified that the two biggest causes of my health challenges were stress and the toxicity that I had been exposed to in the dental practice. Looking back from what I know today it is obvious. However, at the time it was a revelation that a dental office could be toxic and affect your health.
You see in those days, I was still placing amalgams, and in the 80’s we were still combining the mercury with the metal powder and mixing them chairside.
I still remember seeing dots of mercury in the carpet under the mobile cabinet where the amalgam slurry was prepared.
I also remember having a chemclave in my practices, and the smell it would release when the door was opened. Imagine breathing these chemicals all day long as they are continually released from the sterilizer into the dental office.
It is no wonder I got sick. I was stressed out and toxic.
The Meeting That Changed My Life
The meeting that changed my life forever was an ACAM (American College for Advancement in Medicine) meeting I took around 1994. David Kennedy, whom I had recently met and knew my story said, ‘You have to go to this meeting. It will change your life forever.’ He was right. It did.
Here I was a lowly dentist in a room of M.D.’s and the subject of the meeting was how dentistry affects overall health. Why were M.D.’s interested in dentistry enough to dedicate the entire meeting to it? It was the who’s who of holistic and biological dentistry, and to me much of it was new, especially the research. So many light bulbs went off during that weekend that it is no wonder my head did not explode!
I had already vowed to never place an mercury/amalgam filling again, but what about how I removed them? You see I had cleaned up my health enough at the time to actually feel the effects of mercury on me whenever I removed an old amalgam.
I remember within a minute of drilling on an amalgam filling, my fingertips would get tingly and numb and my head would get foggy and dull. I also remember having to go back to my office and drinking a ton of water. I guess this was my body’s way of trying to flush out the toxic metal that had just been breathed into my lungs and gotten into my blood stream and from there gotten into my brain.
I had previously not known how to practice holistic and biological dentistry correctly and here were the answers right in front of me and delivered on a silver platter by M.D.’s! If there was previously any doubt that I was on the right track, this meeting erased them from my mind forever.
The Search for a Non Toxic Dental Office
The other question I had at the time was, ‘How can I make the dental environment non toxic, or at least make my office as non toxic as possible?’
Thus began my search for a space that I could make non toxic. It took about 3 years of subleasing other dental offices, until I finally was able to settle into an office that:
- had windows that opened
- was on a greenbelt and didn’t look out onto a parking lot or busy street
- where I could tear out all the carpet and replace it with flooring without glues or toxic materials
- where I could have high speed air filters with charcoal meant to filter mercury out of the air
- was able to install mercury filters in the suction lines and in the floor to keep it from contaminating the water supply
What I discovered in those 3 years is that few spaces lend themselves to a non toxic environment when it comes to dentistry. Also, most dental practices that have been open for 5 years are already toxic. I know because during this time I tested many offices for mercury contamination.
In the end, in order to produce an office that was not already toxic, I had to start from scratch and build it myself.
So finally, I had an office space that was not contaminated with mercury and chemicals that could affect my patients, my staff and me. I was finally off and running with my new practice of holistic and biological dentistry.
What Holistic Dentistry Has Taught Me
What I have discovered over the years is that holistic/biological dentistry is more challenging than regular dentistry, because I need to be mindful of all the ways dentistry can and does affect overall health. I also tend to attract people who don’t do well at more traditional dental practices.
However, the other things about holistic/biological dentistry that make it more interesting and fulfilling to me are that it is aligned with what I believe in my personal life. When it comes to health, I am a lifelong learner and apply everything I learn to my practice as well as to my own life.
The other thing I appreciate about holistic dentistry is that it affords me a nice lifestyle.
Gone are the days where I have to see multiple patients at the same time, and when I don’t have enough time to really sit down and talk to my patients.
I genuinely like my patients and treat them like I would a family member. Most of them come because they want to not because they have to.
In the end, holistic dentistry has afforded everything I wanted and was trying to accomplish when I owned 6 dental practices!
I now work 3 days a week, have a staff of 2, enjoy dentistry and going to work because I know who will be there when I arrive. My patients! That is what keeps me going and why I go into work every day, because I still look forward to who I will see that day.
Carey O’Rielly DDS has been a practicing dentist for 35 years. He went to USC Dental School and Duke University for his undergraduate degree. He grew up in Laguna Beach and now lives in La Costa with his wife Victoria, who runs his office.
He began his career by owning and operating a network of six offices in the San Francisco Bay Area. Presently he owns a private holistic practice in North County San Diego’s Encinitas.
Dr. O started looking for solutions to his health challenges that resulted from the stress and environmental toxicity that built up over a ten year period running his dental network. He has dedicated himself to learning about oral systemic problems and how dentistry can affect your health. He has applied what he has learned over the last twenty years to ensure he, his staff and his patients are protected from the chemicals and toxic materials found in most dental offices. He has produced an environmentally friendly office that is also peaceful and calm.
He is an expert on dental materials having looked at hundreds of biocompatibility lab tests over the years. He has identified the most bio-friendly materials to use in his practice and which dental materials can be used to replace metal fillings and crowns, including BPA free and fluoride free ‘white’ fillings. He also uses metal-free Zirconia or ceramic implants and PRF (platelet-rich fibrin) grafting materials which come from the patient’s own blood.
Dr. O’Rielly teaches C.E. courses on the systemic effects of gum disease. He is an expert in using phase contrast microscopy for analyzing dental infections, where he shows patients what kind of microbes, i.e. bacteria, amoeba, and yeasts like candida are populating the mouth and affecting the body as a whole.
He has an educational blog and is writing a book on dental health called ‘Hidden Dental Infections: Healing Root Canals and Infected Teeth with the Erbium Laser’ where he discusses dental nutrition, toxic dental materials and the effects of old root canals on inflammation and overall health.