Growing up around his orthodontist father and oral surgeon grandfather, Dr. Judah Garfinkle never thought much about joining the family industry. He had many career interests growing up and while at college at the University of Oregon, but finally came to dentistry on his own after wanting to focus on helping others and working his hands.
While in dental school at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, he attended a mission trip to Bolivia with Operation Smile, a nonprofit organization that that helps treat children in other countries affected by cleft lip and palate. Through this trip, he was part of a team that delivered over a hundred surgeries in just a few days. He was able to make oral appliances and partial dentures for people who would never otherwise have received the care. He was able to lead the student team on visits to orphanages and schools, teaching the children about oral hygiene and other basic health care needs, all the while learning from experts in craniofacial care.
While many aspects of dentistry attracted Dr. Garfinkle, the desire to have long term relationships with his patients and the option of working with children led him to orthodontics. During his orthodontic training at the University of Kentucky, Dr. Garfinkle was drawn to treating patients with cleft lip and palate and other craniofacial conditions. And while he gained some experience during his residency, he had learned enough to know he needed further training to really be able to help patients affected by cleft and other craniofacial conditions.
Following his orthodontic residency, Dr. Garfinkle was accepted to the Craniofacial and Special Care Orthodontic Fellowship at the Institute of Reconstructive Plastic Surgery at New York University. He learned about all types of clefts, other craniofacial conditions, and various complicated cases, how to diagnose and manage them, and learned how to work as part of the interdisciplinary team. His fellowship exposed him to both the treatment and emotional needs of the patients and families as the process often extended from birth into adulthood.
“During my fellowship, I received a piece of advice from one of my professors,” said Dr. Garfinkle. “He told me, ‘You’ve got to take all comers, not just those who can afford it.’”
Dr. Garfinkle took his professor’s advice and his newfound expertise in craniofacial orthodontics and returned home to Oregon where he accepted a position as the Director of Craniofacial Orthodontics at OHSU’s Doernbecher Children’s Hospital and began working with his father in his orthodontic practice in Portland.
In 2008, Dr. Garfinkle used his expertise to found Smile Oregon, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring that every family affected by a cleft or craniofacial condition living in Oregon has access to the coordinated care they deserve by providing support, awareness and education.
“Most people associate the need for the work we do with other countries, but children are born with cleft and craniofacial conditions right here in our backyard, and struggle to receive the care they need,” said Dr. Garfinkle. “It’s a disservice to think that it only happens in other countries or that a one-and-done treatment is all that is necessary to fix a cleft. The good news is that we know what to do, how to do it, and when to do it, and we can pretty much erase a cleft before the child is off to college. But it takes 20 years and costs over a $120,000. And even with insurance, it is common for up to $20,000 of the care to not be covered.”
Smile Oregon provides support for any indicated procedure from birth through adulthood. They also focus on community support for the patients they serve. This year, Smile Oregon is hosting a teen event for the first time, and some of the families have been a part of Smile Oregon for over 10 years now.
“There are not too many positive things about getting older, but one is getting to be on this amazing journey with these children and their families. It makes all my work worth it. I met a lot of these kids when they were one to two weeks old and now a lot of them are old enough to go bowling and hang out. It’s a great thing to see,” said Dr. Garfinkle. “We’re also starting parent programs. The parents of the older children are experienced in how to deal with these conditions and looking to help families just starting out. These programs give the parents an opportunity to pay it forward to other parents who are just now beginning their journeys.”
While many organizations operating primarily overseas are unable to provide care other than the primary surgical correction for these types of conditions, Smile Oregon is focused on ensuring all aspects of patient care are supported from birth to adulthood including specialized baby bottles, speech therapy, final restorative dental work and everything in between.
As the co-founder and Board President of Smile Oregon, Dr. Garfinkle has led his working board for over 10 years, fulfilling the day-to-day work of the organization to provide personalized service to each family regardless of their ability to pay. Recently, the organization hired their first team member, which has allowed them to expand their reach.
Dr. Garfinkle’s vision, whether working at Doernbecher, at his private orthodontic practice or with Smile Oregon, is to "craft smiles that elevate the spirit."
“We have such a wonderful dental community in Oregon,” said Dr. Garfinkle. “Being able to make a difference to our patients by lifting their spirits helps give all of us a sense of purpose and satisfaction in our own lives.”