Building Bridges and Impacting Young Lives
Meeting NeedsWalking through the hallways of Sparrow, Dr. Sonja Norris is greeted with smiles and familiar faces at every corner. She knows the place well because she is often there performing sedation dentistry on some very young patients. Dr. Norris DDS, PLLC practices general dentistry, but what sets her apart is her focus on children with special needs, children who are medically compromised and children with extensive caries. She graduated from Michigan State University with a B.S. in medical technology in 1988, and the University of Michigan Dental School in 1992. Dr. Norris then practiced as an associate dentist until 2000 in Detroit, Flint, Jackson and Lansing. That was when everything changed. In 2000, Dr. Norris became the first dentist providing treatment during the establishment of the Healthy Smiles Dental Center, specifically for children with Medicaid in Ingham County. During this time she also was director for the adult dental site for the uninsured. “Thursday was my kids day … that’s how it all started.” said Dr. Norris. Children’s day at Ingham opened her eyes to the level of decay in these young patients, and the extent and length of the procedures she had to perform. “Children were coming in, three or four years old with severe decay. They were sitting in this chair and I had to numb them up and pull out their four front teeth, [sometimes more]. I just couldn’t take it. I just thought, ‘no child should have to go through this.’”
Finding SolutionsDr. Norris knew there had to be a better way, so she took it upon herself to see what she could do to find a solution. That was when she had her epiphany. “[I had to] find out if we could do [procedures on] these children under sedation of some type at Ingham.” It was a request that no dentist had ever made before. The medical director at Ingham’s Greenlawn campus was called and asked if it was possible, and he said yes. “All it took was a simple yes,” Dr. Norris explains. “[The medical director] could have said no, and I wouldn’t be helping these children the way I am today.” In 2003 Dr. Norris had about two or three serious children cases per month, and worked with a specialized team to perform her sedation dentistry. “Oral surgeons went there for jaw surgery and that type of thing, but I was there to do dentistry … on three-year-olds. [This was unusual].” Upon leaving Ingham, her passion for her unique method went with her, and she mentored in sedation dentistry at the private practice of Dr. Daniel Klein. The next year, pregnant with her second child, Dr. Norris began her private practice for hospital and sedation dentistry for children. Dr. Norris initiated her hospital surgical privileges at Ingham Regional Medical Center before leaving, but in 2007, she gave a Sparrow Pediatric Grand Rounds presentation to nurses, pediatricians and pediatric residents, and was sought to obtain privileges at Sparrow as well.
New BeginningsNot every child that Dr. Norris sees is treated using sedation dentistry, but thanks to her, the option is there for those who need it. And there are many that do. To date, she has conducted more than 1,700 surgeries for children with multiple cavities, alongside children with severe anxieties and special needs such as asthma, autism, ADHD, cerebral palsy, and down syndrome among others. “Here are the three-year-olds with open heart surgery, stunts in their head, or a gastrostomy tube. Their teeth are infected, or they need fillings. Well, no dentist is going to see them. And a pediatric dentist would have to see them in their office, maybe give them oral sedation. [Thes children] have high risk medical problems, so we get prior authorization from their doctors saying their teeth need to be done. [They know I] have privileges in surgery, so we put them to sleep [to take care of] their teeth.” Not taking care of these teeth can greatly affect a child’s health, Dr. Norris adds. “Recurring infections affect the respiratory area, [can cause] ear infections and put their [already] low immune system at risk.” With her work at Sparrow Hospital, she has shared cases for children with oral surgeons, ear nose and throat physicians, general surgeons and urologists to treat a child in the operating room once, eliminating the need for the child to be intubated twice under general anesthesia. As a consult to the Michigan Dental Association Committee on Government and Insurance Affairs, Dr. Norris works to retain and increase Medicaid funding for children, to keep helping those who need it. Special needs aside, there are children who are just grateful not to have come in, again and again, to have multiple teeth pulled. Dr. Norris can take care of it all at once. No child should have to go through that if it can be avoided. I always assess the situation, and if it looks like the child needs more work, then why have them remember any of it? If a child has trouble sitting still, or has [gone through trauma already], I say why not ease the burden and sedate them so I don’t have to add to stress to their [young lives].”
Smiling FacesThere are also many young children who aren’t afraid to smile anymore thanks to Dr. Norris. She recalls one mother telling her that she caught her three-year-old son awake one night, staring at himself in the mirror. He was admiring his new teeth. Having lived with decay only a short time still had an impact on his confidence, and that’s another reason why Dr. Norris does what she does. As much as Dr. Norris has a passion for her work, her family is very important to her. When she gets home, regardless of what time it is, she is a wife and mother first and foremost. “I could get home at 10 p.m., be exhausted, and I will still read a book to my son or braid my daughter’s hair.” She also makes a point to take vacation and getaway with her family. This year, Dr. Norris and her husband, Anthony, are going back to the Bahamas … with their children. It’ll be the first time for 11-year-old Sierra and three-year-old Tyler. “I can’t wait to see the look on their faces when they get to the resort,” she said. Dr. Norris is respected among colleagues and staff. Her office manager, Pat Miller, had nothing but good to say of the woman she has worked closely with for many years. “I just have to let you know that she is one of the most down-to-earth, caring individuals you will ever meet,” Miller said. Even as an adult, being treated by Dr. Norris is something to envy. Children enjoy getting dental work done in her cheery office (equipped with DVDs and themed rooms), and in the care they receive in the operating room at Sparrow. “I love what I do. It is extremely fulfilling, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop.” Visit her site: http://sonjagnorrisdds.com
Suban Nur Cooley
Suban Nur Cooley is a young communications professional and writer in the Greater Lansing region, who currently works for Capital Gains and the Refugee Development Center. She is also a proud Australian expatriate and Lansing homeowner.