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On the Job: Smiles Make Him Happy

Dr. Albert Klitzke, who has been a dentist for 30 years, knows he's making a difference in people's lives

Dr. Albert Klitzke was sitting in the lobby of his office one recent morning, talking about a 30-year career as a dentist that’s taken him from Wisconsin to Camp Pendleton to Alpine to Santee.

When he was asked what he likes best about being a dentist, he thought for a second and said, “probably seeing things like this…”

With that, he got up, walked down the hall and returned carrying a photo album of before-and-after shots of the patients he’s worked with since opening his office in a little shopping center on Cuyamaca Street in 2006.

As he opened the album, he flipped through page after page, telling stories about the people in the images.

Many, he related, had been afraid to smile because of dental problems. Some wanted their teeth whiter. Some were “not employable” because of their appearance, or lacked the confidence they needed to look for a job or form relationships.

“And I was able to create that for them,” Klitzke says. “In these pictures you can see. They’re smiling a whole lot more.”

Klitzke, 54, knows he can make a difference in people’s lives because he sees it in their faces and hears it in their words of gratitude.

“When you put a smile on someone’s face, that makes it worthwhile,” he says.

His mother’s influence

When he was growing up in Wisconsin, Klitzke always had an interest in science. That, and the fact his mother was a dental hygienist steered him toward dentistry.

“She was always talking about the importance of taking good care of your teeth, and of course (her) working in a dental office gave me exposure to that,” he says.

He went to dental school at Marquette University and graduated in 1982, then joined the Navy where he received advance training as a dentist and was stationed at Camp Pendleton, serving Marines and sailors.

He spent three years in active service (followed by two years in reserves) and enjoyed the experience practicing general dentistry and learning from specialists.

“It was a great place to start,” says Klitzke, who earned the Meritorious Service Award while working at Camp Pendleton.

After leaving the Navy as a lieutenant, Klitzke stayed in the county, going to work in Alpine for the Southern Indian Health Council, a non-profit organization that provides medical and dental care for Native Americans (and some others) from across the region.

Klitzke worked 20 years for the Council, and as the program’s dental director managed a team of dentists, hygienists, assistants and lab techs who worked on a range of treatments.

In his position, Klitzke felt a responsibility to not only provide dental service – particularly basic needs and health issues rather than cosmetic work -- but to be a “great steward” of government money used in the program. He thought he was successful at doing both, saying he and his group were able to make an impact on a wide range of dental problems – “more than just teeth,” he says.

Eventually, however, he felt it was time to move on to something else.

“I thought it was a great program and we raised their level of health, and I did that for 20 years,” he says, “but then I felt it was time to move on to private practice.”

That’s when Klitzke, who lives in El Cajon, opened his office in Santee.

Now, he runs a private practice for the first time in his career and focuses on family dentistry.

Much of his work now is cosmetic, and much of his work is done with lasers – an aspect that has been part of the evolution of modern dentistry, along with computers and use of digital images.

He’s been among the first dentists in the county to incorporate lasers – in his case, a Waterlase MD laser that combines water in a process called hydrophotonics that can allow for quicker, more efficient and more comfortable procedures.

Comfort, he knows, is important because so many people have a fear of dental work and put it off as long as possible or avoid it altogether.

The use of lasers and nitrous oxide can help people get past those fears, with the result being better health, he said.

“There’s a universal fear about going to the dentist,” Klitzke says. “We try to work through that. We try not to do too much on any one visit, gain people’s confidence.

“I think talking to patients, too, is important. Patients want to be able to talk easily and comfortably with a dentist, and I try to do that.”

In private practice

Away from work, Klitzke stays busy as a member of many local and national dental organizations, business groups and the Santee Chamber of Commerce, while also working for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. He also swims, reads and collects stamps.

After so many years in large organizations – first the Navy, then the Southern Indian Health Council – Klitzke is enjoying private practice.

Now his work consists mostly of doing fillings and crowns, root canals, cosmetic work and implants.

“I’m not a specialist,” he says. “It’s a wide variety.”

And, he’s working with constant improvements in technology. Dentistry, he says, has changed much since he graduated from Marquette, noting improvements in materials, lasers and implants.

Now his office is small – just a staff of three – and much more streamlined than what he was used to.

He’s enjoyed the change.

“It’s nice to be in private practice because you don’t have the administration that you have to report to,” he says. “You make your own decisions and have your own budget and you’re a lot more in control of the management aspect as opposed to having to work with the state or the federal government or Indian Health Service or the administration there to implement policies or do things that you think would work real well.”

And if he ever has any doubts about his work, he can always open the photo album.

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