USC University of Southern California

Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC

USC dentistry helps patient overcome dental fear

Louis Carr portrait USC
Louis “Kengi” Carr (Photo: Louis Kengi Carr)

Freelance photographer Louis “Kengi” Carr finds comfort at the Dr. Roseann Mulligan Special Patients Clinic. 

BY JAMIE WETHERBE MA ’04

“Throughout my childhood and most of my adulthood, I loved going to the dentist,” says Louis “Kengi” Carr. But something changed during a dental appointment in 2017. 

While being treated at a nonprofit healthcare organization for the LGBT and HIV-positive communities, a dentist explained to Carr that he needed to have four molars extracted.

“I had no idea why,” Carr says. “The teeth she removed weren’t bothering me. Even when I asked, [the dentist] didn’t really explain anything, and I was left without a clear plan and holes in my mouth.”

When the same dentist suggested another tooth removal — a procedure that couldn’t be done there in her clinic — Carr was referred to Ostrow’s Dr. Roseann Mulligan Special Patients Clinic in the summer of 2017. 

“That tooth is still in my mouth,” Carr says. “If she’d been able to pull it, I don’t know where I’d be.”  

The antidote to fear

In addition to providing quality dental care for those with physical, psychological or medical disabilities, the Mulligan Special Patients Clinic treats individuals with complex medical histories like Carr, who is both HIV-positive and in remission from cancer.

Every USC dental student completes a week-long rotation through the Special Patients Clinic and then has the option to return and continue treating patients.

It was during this rotation that Onik Chowdhury DDS ’18 was first introduced to Carr. 

“I felt a connection with Louis right away,” Chowdhury says. “You can tell when a patient is going to be open with you, and he was.”

While Carr was apprehensive about more dental care after what he had already experienced, he says he was quickly put at ease at USC.

“Onik saw my camera, and that created an immediate connection,” says Carr, a freelance photographer who often shoots red-carpet events. “The experience from start to finish was amazing; I fell asleep a couple of times in the chair, I was so relaxed.”

Sensing Carr’s initial anxiety, Chowdhury worked to establish trust right away. While in the chair, Carr revealed his fear of needles, so Chowdhury gave Carr his first shot slowly, explaining each step. 

“Communication is key, even with patients who aren’t afraid of the dentist,” Chowdhury explains. “That way patients understand what’s happening to them and their bodies — it helps with the fear of the unknown.”

Chowdhury also reminds patients that communication goes both ways. “Patients should speak up, so providers can modify treatments,” he says. “Patients fear pain, but ultimately our goal is to get you out of pain so you can achieve better oral health. A dentist is like any health professional — we’re here to help you.”

Smiling bigger than ever

Over the course of a year, Chowdhury performed several procedures for Carr, including a crown prep, a wisdom tooth extraction and the construction of a removable appliance.

“I think that’s the treatment he’s most thankful for,” Chowdhury says of the upper denture. 

For more than a year, Carr could only use his front teeth to chew. “I felt like I was just swallowing food or eating things I shouldn’t because they were softer and easier on my teeth,” he says. “It really affected my quality of life.”

In addition to restoring his oral health, Carr was thrilled to get his smile back. 

“Even though I’m on the other side of the camera, people would look at me and see these holes in my mouth,” he says. “Friends, PR people and celebrities I photographed would say, ‘You don’t smile as big anymore,’ and I would tell them I’m growing out my beard or something. Now people tell me my smile is back — I finally have teeth in my mouth!” 

For Chowdhury, who pushed to complete Carr’s treatments before graduating, caring for Carr from start to finish was a cornerstone of his education. 

“It was the highlight of my career at dental school,” Chowdhury says. “Helping him and seeing the outcome reminds me of why I got into this profession. That experience made me want to become a better clinician and provide better care to every patient I come across.” 

The feeling is mutual for Carr. “I felt like I gained a friend from this,” he says. “I actually took Onik’s graduation portraits.”

Throughout his experience, Carr says he felt in control of his care, thanks to the communication with his providers. 

“Onik wasn’t afraid to ask me questions, and I think that’s what made him a great dentist,” says Carr, who was once a USC student and often photographs events around campus. “The care was excellent; I felt like a person, not just a number. It makes me proud to be a Trojan. Fight on!”