CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) — He may be 91, but unlike most men his age, Bill Harris is not taking it easy in his retirement years — instead, he's still an active, practicing dentist. Now in his 65th year of dentistry, Harris may be the only man alive who can say he knows every mouth in Carlsbad — "once or twice." He claims to be the oldest practicing dentist in the state of New Mexico, and most wouldn't doubt him.
Harris said the U.S. Army sent him to Creighton University School of Dentistry in Omaha, Neb., during World War II, where he eventually graduated with a doctor of dental surgery degree in 1947. After completing his education, he returned to his hometown of Carlsbad, where he opened Harris Dental Association with his brother Dale, also a World War II veteran who was practicing dentistry in China at the time.
A lot has changed in dentistry since Harris first started in the late 1940s, but even with the evolution of materials and procedures, Harris said instruments haven't changed much at all. In fact, he still has several instruments that are more than 50 years old that he uses on a daily basis. When pointing out one upper third molar forceps made in the 1960s, Harris said, "Of course, it still works. It's just not as pretty as it used to be." Harris said he has done everything a dentist can possibly do since he began practicing over half a century ago, such as wiring fractured jaws together and extracting teeth for dentures. However, he recently cut back on "the cases that keep you up at night," he said, like impactions and tough surgery cases. And though he doesn't feel any less capable, he said he just doesn't want to spend time on them anymore.
He also cut back on his hours and only practices two and a half days a week rather than five. He said he usually sees three to eight patients a day and still performs minor oral surgeries at his office. But while his days have become pretty routine, he said there is always room for emergencies.
As the oldest practicing member of the American Dental Association, Harris said he is required to attend 60 hours of conferences, seminars and classes every three years to maintain his license. This also helps him to stay updated with the times and new procedures in dentistry.
At one time, Harris was licensed in three states — Nebraska, Texas and New Mexico - but said he never wanted to practice anywhere but Carlsbad. It's where he grew up, met his wife, raised his children and practiced alongside his younger brother for 58 years.
Harris claims to have a lot of achievements under his belt as the oldest dentist in the state, including having performed surgeries in every hospital in Carlsbad, maintaining the largest practice in New Mexico at one time and having been invited, along with his brother, to the Mayo Clinic Dental Reviews. Harris said they were the first dentists ever invited to attend from south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
But even with all his accomplishments, Harris said there are two things he's most proud of in dentistry — how he's never hurt a patient and that he's been able to keep costs down for the five generations of people that he's worked on. Harris said he has the best patients in Carlsbad, but while his mind is still sharp enough to perform intricate dental procedures, he can no longer remember his patients' names. "I just go by the chart," he said with a smile, and no one is the wiser.
When asked if he has any plans to retire, Harris gave a firm, "no."
"I'm not tired yet," he said simply, though he is looking forward to a time where he can travel more often and go on boat trips with his wife, Helen, 83, who said she wants to retire from working in the front office of her husband's practice next year.
And even though it's not looking like retirement has a place in Harris' near future, he does have plans to possibly make himself even busier. His practice is for sale, he said, and when someone buys it, he wants to go to work with his daughter, Peggy Hyden, who will soon start working as a dental hygienist in Carlsbad schools. Harris said he's just not ready to quit - "I like dentistry," he said.
And even with all that's changed in dentistry and in the world since Harris started examining teeth 65 years ago, there's one basic truth that has remained the same: "A clean tooth will never decay," he said.
At 91, with many life experiences behind him, Harris said that's still the best advice he can give. "Just keep 'em clean."
Information from: Carlsbad Current-Argus, http://www.currentargus.com/