By Laurel Petriello | Photography by Christopher Appoldt
Some people ardently set out to change the world. For others, however, philanthropic ideals are simply a second calling. Leon Klempner, DDS, of Long Island, NY, is literally saving the world one smile at a time.
The founder of Smile Rescue Fund for Kids, a nonprofit organization that raises money for international children with severe facial deformities, Klempner never imagined his path would lead him halfway around the globe. The inability to accept the idea of a “hopeless” case, however, and the will to provide the best quality of life to patients worldwide, has ignited a conduit of service.
The Pathway to Global Aid
Klempner was so uninspired as a dental student in the mid-1970s that he nearly switched his major to secondary education to become a high school history teacher. But following some time spent with orthodontic graduate students, his interest in the field was reignited.
“I liked the informality. I liked the no anxiety, no injections, no drills—that all appealed to me. It was at that point, I decided that I was going to study hard and get to be the top of my class so I could go to orthodontic school,” Klempner recalls.
On a mission, Klempner did just that. After graduating from dental school at the University of Maryland in 1975, he went on to secure his postdoctorate degree in orthodontics from Tufts University in 1977. A year later, after associating with doctors in the Boston area on a per diem basis and coming up dry in search of a full-time position, he and his wife packed up and set out for Long Island to open their first practice in Medford, New York.
“My parents were living in Queens, NY, at the time and my wife’s parents lived in Queens, so we decided to come back,” he adds. “We started the practice from scratch. My wife was my receptionist, my lab assistant, my clinical assistant, and my business manager, which was not that hard to do because, in the beginning, we had no patients.”
Reminiscing about the early years of his practice, Coolsmiles, Klempner continues, “We didn’t really know what we were doing, but I had confidence in my clinical abilities. I had great training, so that was the most important part. I felt really confident coming out of school, but the business side of it—you know, how to set up accounts receivable, accounts payable, how to set up contracts, overhead, etc—I was totally unprepared. We just kind of winged it and concentrated on providing excellent care for the patients, letting the other stuff take care of itself.”
Klempner and his wife, Laurie, pressed on, careful not to compromise any clinical ideals. He was fueled by the peace of mind that though he was sailing in uncharted territory, the advantages of making all of his own decisions and the ability to practice the way he was trained were priceless.
How to Succeed in Business
Following 20 years of success in his Medford practice, Klempner expanded the business in 1998, opening a second location in Port Jefferson, just 11 miles away. Five years later, he took on full-time associate David Amram, DMD, who later became his partner in the practice.
Equally successful in their patient growth, both Coolsmiles locations see a variety of demographics, ranging from age 5 to patients well into their 70s. The practice also treats various needs, including pre-prosthetic work, corrective jaw surgery, and cleft lip and palate treatment.
Klempner attributes much of ?his success to a great staff. “We started with just my wife, and we have gradually grown to 12 to 13 people. They have been instrumental in the growth of my practice.”
The staff is also an integral part of Klempner’s goal of providing exceptional treatment with emphasis on patient experience. “[At Coolsmiles], patients come to expect that they’re going to get good clinical care, but the behavioral aspect of their experience is critical to a practice. We want them to enjoy coming to the office. We want them to have a good experience. That’s vital to any growing practice.
“Simple things like not making them wait, respecting their time, having pleasant people around them, and having good music is key,” Klempner notes. “We listen to Pandora in the office. I grew up in the ’60s, so there’s a lot of early rock and roll—Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who, etc. Parents, and even the kids, love it. We’re always getting positive comments about the atmosphere.”
Adding to the patient experience, Klempner builds referrals through continued marketing efforts like social media and contest giveaways. Celebrating its 35th anniversary of business, the practice is even giving away a trip for two to Bermuda this year. While it is certainly the practice’s biggest to date, this contest rides the wave of others in years past, including a cutest pet contest and a summer tradition of giving away more than 150 baseball game tickets annually.
“We’re in the unbelievably lucky and fortunate business of having fun,” he says. “Having fun for us means that our practice is going to grow.”
A Mission to Rescue Smiles
An avid interest in treating cleft lip and palate drove Klempner to share his expertise on overseas missions with international charities such as Operation Smile, Health Volunteers Overseas, and Smile Train. After his last mission to Nairobi, Kenya, to teach and to assist with the organization, he was presented with a challenge.
“When I got home [from a mission 3 years ago], I got an email from one of the Smile Train directors in Africa who came across a little girl who was brought in with a very severe deformity,” Klempner recalls. “She had a cleft lip and palate, but then was also infected with a disease called NOMA, a flesh-eating bacteria that is usually fatal and there’s no cure. It infected her face and ate through her skin, her upper jaw, and half of her nose. It was beyond the scope of anything that Smile Train could do for her.”
Smile Train approached Klempner for potential resources locally in Nairobi that could help the 12-year-old girl, named Saline. With regret, he told them there weren’t any.
“I felt the same frustration that I’m sure she and her family felt, because, on the 12 missions that I’ve been on in the past, there are always a few children and adults who come to us with such severe facial deformities that it’s impossible to correct in the field. They require an extensive amount of care and money, so they get turned away. It’s always the most heart-wrenching part of going on any of these missions. They come back year after year, and they get turned away.”
As a result of Saline’s otherwise hopeless case, Klempner could not rest. With the goal of raising money to treat her case and provide her with necessary plastic surgery, he founded Smile Rescue Fund for Kids.
“I said, ‘I can’t really help all four million children out there with clefts and other facial deformities that need repair, but maybe I can help one,’ ” he continues. “I wanted to give her a chance, a chance to get back into society, maybe meet someone, get married, have a family, and receive an education. Right now, she has poor self-esteem and no social skills. She is really ostracized, as are all these kids [in Africa with her condition].”
Smile Rescue Fund for Kids began gathering support to help Saline. Klempner’s three adult children, medical and dental colleagues, and even his patients hosted fund-raisers. After a story ran in the local newspaper, support also poured in from the community.
“People responded with open arms and warm hearts,” Klempner says. “I thought raising the money would be the hard part, but raising the money was the easy part.”
Once Smile Rescue Fund for Kids reached its goal, he assembled a team of doctors in Nairobi to embark on Saline’s treatment. Unfortunately, due to the severe nature of her problem, her initial series of surgeries was unsuccessful. Klempner’s last hope was to continue fund-raising and bring her to the United States.
“I wanted to try to bring her here to give her whatever state-of-the-art treatment was possible,” Klempner continues. “Through Stony Brook University Hospital and some of my friends, we were able to gather enough resources to take care of that, but then we had to bring her here.”
Unbeknownst to him, that would be the biggest challenge of all. Coming from a remote village in Nairobi, Saline did not have a birth certificate to acquire a visa. With a bit of persistence, Smile Rescue Fund for Kids managed to secure a 90-day medical visa for Saline and brought her to New York in June 2013. Scheduled for a series of four surgeries, Saline’s first surgery occurred on June 28, 2013. Her final surgery will be completed by September.
Once her treatment is complete, Klempner has big plans for the future of Smile Rescue Fund for Kids. The organization intends on helping other “hopeless” cases around the globe. In addition to medical outreach, it is also working on ways to improve living conditions in remote African villages like Saline’s.
“Through the connection with Saline, we’ve learned a lot about the village she’s from,” Klempner notes. “Part of our future plan is to bring together local people to bring clean drinking water to her village, as well as solar panels to get light into their homes so they no longer have to rely on kerosene.”
The Future of Coolsmiles
Back on his home turf, Klempner’s practice, Coolsmiles, also has a bright future that starts with a foundation of technology and social media marketing.
“Our practice is on the cutting edge of technology and always has been,” Klempner boasts. “I’m a tech geek, and I like to incorporate that latest technology to benefit the patient, if possible. We were one of the first practices to institute electronic records back in 1992. And we continue to innovate in that area. For instance, we went to total digital scanning a few years back.”
Today, the practice utilizes the latest in practice-management software for iPads to schedule appointments, check patients into the office, and even check them out. Concierges float throughout the offices providing one-on-one, boutique service to patients and their parents. According to Klempner, patients appreciate the added benefits greater technology brings, like shorter wait time, direct contact, and more human attention.
He is also conscious to utilize the strongest means of staying connected with patients outside of the office today: social media.
“From the beginning, I’ve grown our practice based on developing relationships with my patients and their families one-by-one,” he says. “Now, with the Internet, we’re able to put that on steroids and extend it online. When they’re not in the office, we can still connect with them. On Facebook, we have over 2,500 fans. We interact with patients on a regular basis. We run our contests that way. We have interesting posts, riddles, theme days, etc.”
He continues, “All of these things help to extend and enhance the relationship we have outside of the office. From a business standpoint, that translates to referrals and new patients. It’s a new digital world now. Running a business requires that you go where the patients are—and they’re online.” Klempner credits Coolsmiles’ successful marketing efforts and increased patient referrals for the fact that the practice will bring on a third partner next year.
Two years ago, Klempner partnered with his daughter Amy, a marketing executive, to launch People & Practice LLC—a social media marketing consultancy designed specifically for orthodontic practices. The goal is to help Klempner’s peers harness the power of social media and internet marketing.
“My colleagues certainly realize that social media is becoming an integral part of connecting with patients, but it’s not necessarily in their skill set or among their interests. That’s where we come in. We know the ins and outs of implementing an online social media strategy in an orthodontic practice We’ve been doing it for over 10 years at Coolsmiles. But our real value is taking the time to understand the culture that orthodontic patients experience in the office and bringing it to life online.” OP
Practice Profile / Coolsmiles Orthodontics
Location: Port Jefferson and Medford, NY
Office square footage: 2,500 and 2,000, respectively
Number of chairs: five and four, respectively
Years in practice: 35
Education: University of Maryland, DDS; Tufts University, Orthodontics
Average patients per day: 50 to 60/per office
Starts per year: 800
Days worked per week: 4
Top six products used: Itero Digital Scanner, Invisalign, L-Pop, Transbond, GAC Microarch, Clarity Brackets