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Dr Bari Levine of Growing Smiles Main Line Pediatric Dentistry: 5 Things You Need To Create A Successful Career As A Dentist

An Interview With Luke Kervin

Photo credit: Avi Loren Fox

Stay active in dental study groups and keep up to date on the cutting edge of new technologies in dentistry. Dentistry is a constantly changing profession, and it is imperative to stay up-to-date with current evidence-based literature and procedures that will help my patients. The best clinicians I know are constantly learning and seeking out continuing education in the field. Being a part of dental study groups is also excellent for a team approach to dentistry and helps when your patient needs to be referred to a specialist or another provider.

As part of our series about healthcare leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Bari Levine.

In March 2022, Dr. Bari Levine opened her state-of-the-art pediatric dentistry practice Growing Smiles Main Line Pediatric Dentistry in Narberth, PA, taking “kid-friendly” to another level — with a treehouse, slide, a gaming station, movies, gum ball machines that dispense toys and more.

A board-certified pediatric dentist with a Masters in Public Health, Dr. Levine is also the Founder/CEO of the Growing Smiles Foundation, a non-profit that has provided over $600,000 of pro-bono, high-quality comprehensive dental care to thousands of underserved children in Lima, Peru.

For every new patient, Growing Smiles Main Line Pediatric Dentistry will make a donation to GET Café in Narberth, a non-profit dedicated to facilitating the social inclusion of neurodivergent individuals — and their families and caretakers — in the community setting. (Neurodivergence is the term for when someone’s brain processes, learns, and/or behaves differently from what is considered “typical.”)

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! What is your “backstory”?

Thank you for having me! I have had total immersion in the field of dentistry from birth, as I come from a family of dentists. My parents actually met in dental school! My mother, father and brother are all dental specialists. I grew up in both of my parents’ offices and I experienced first hand the difference my mother and father were making in their patients’ lives.

My mother and brother, Dr. Sheryl Radin and Dr. Ross Levine, own Growing Smiles in Floral Vale, an incredible pediatric dentistry practice my mother started over 25 years ago. I have modeled my own practice after their Growing Smiles in Yardley, PA. My father, Dr. Robert Levine, is a world renown periodontist and lecturer.

During college, I studied Environmental Science and Policy and took the required courses for dental school as well. After graduation, I worked at UBS Investment Bank in London, UK and later at an innovative recycling company called TerraCycle in Trenton, NJ.

After working in the private business sector, I realized that my skills and personality were best suited for the pediatric dental profession. I decided to follow in my family’s footsteps so I too could improve the oral health and overall quality of life for individuals in my care. Going into dentistry ticks all the boxes for a fulfilling career — I have an acute attention to detail, I love working with people and children, and I love helping others.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

It’s funny how one small question can change the course of your career. At Temple University, I was enrolled in a dual Dentistry/Masters in Public Health program. I started my Masters in Public Health program one year prior to going to dental school.

During one of my public health classes, a fellow student asked to speak to me for a couple minutes after class. She was heading to Peru with Temple University medical students to volunteer at a medical clinic within an orphanage in Peru where she would be the supervising physician. She asked me if I could help get donations of toothbrushes and toothpaste for the children at the orphanage. I said, “Sure! But can I come with you?!”

And so I invited myself on the trip to Peru and after that, my life was never the same.

I gathered hundreds of toothbrushes and toothpaste donations from local dentists and packed them into two suitcases. My first day at the orphanage, I completely fell in love with the children there and noticed their urgent need for comprehensive dental education and care. That was how the Growing Smiles Foundation was born. Every year for the next 7 years, I organized a team of supervising dentists (including my family members!) and dental students to travel to Peru to provide free, comprehensive care to underserved children around Lima, Peru.

Every year we traveled with over 30 suitcases worth of dental supplies, 6 portable dental units, a portable x-ray unit and more. To date we have provided over $600,000 in pro-bono care. In order to ensure sustainability, we worked closely with one of the largest dental schools in Peru, the University of Peruvian Sciences (UPC). Through our collaboration, each day UPC brought dental students and supervising dentists to our clinic. We also had lectures at their university to facilitate a cross-cultural partnership between our schools. To see a video of our trip in 2017, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xeSNDCSaxNM&t=9s. Unfortunately due to COVID, we have paused any future trips to Peru.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

It definitely wasn’t funny at the time, but looking back it is! In the first semester of dental school, they have students sculpt a tooth from dental wax. The first test was to wax up a permanent adult canine tooth.

To prepare for my first practical, I stayed after school practicing for hours upon hours. I had my brother, who was a senior in dental school at the time, come to the lab and help me day after day.

When I handed in my waxed up tooth for my very first practical, I thought maybe I’d get a B at the lowest. When my grade came back, I had failed. My heart and stomach sunk to my toes.

I had never failed at anything before. I immediately went up to my row instructor and asked for feedback. I’ll never forget what he said. He put his glasses on and intently stared at the tooth as he was twirling it in his hands. Then he said in a kind, low voice: “Well, Bari…it just doesn’t look like a canine. Let me show you how to make it better.”

When I spoke to my parents that evening on the phone (sobbing of course), they put it into perspective for me: “Do you know how many labs we failed in dental school?!” My mom said with my dad on speaker. “A lot! This is how you learn!” That made me feel so much better considering parents are truly experts in their respective fields.

My perspective really changed after that. It also allowed me to be open to constructive criticism throughout the rest of dental school, residency and in private practice. That’s why they call it “the practice of dentistry” — we are constantly learning and improving.

After six years of practicing dentistry, I can look back and see how it was all a part of the learning process, and how practice really does make perfect!

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?

I just opened my own private practice, and it is an absolute delight for children and their parents! Every square foot of the office was meticulously designed to make the experience at the pediatric dentist relaxing and fun. It has a treehouse with a slide, a little mini toy museum, a gaming station with a Nintendo and Playstation, movies, gum ball machines that dispense toys, and more!

I also work with Special Smiles, Ltd, an outpatient dentistry clinic that provides dental care to individuals with special needs. With Special Smiles and Penn Dental Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, we have developed an oral health education and promotion program for the caregivers of these individuals who live in long-term facilities.

In my opinion, the most important aspect of dental care is prevention. Healthy nutrition, knowing how and why cavities form, in addition to properly brushing and flossing is vital. I am also working with a local author to publish a children’s book surrounding oral health education!

Last, but not least — I see many patients with special healthcare needs, and from day 1 of my practice being open, I wanted to make a positive impact in my local community. For every new patient, my office will donate a portion of proceeds to Get Cafe in Narberth, a non-profit dedicated to facilitating the social inclusion of neurodivergent individuals — and their families and caretakers — in the community setting. We designed the office with this population in mind as well to make sure it’s an engaging sensory experience for all our patients.

Photo credit: Avi Loren Fox

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I would not be where I am without the love and support of both my parents — and of course my big brother, too! They are all-around amazing human beings — selfless, generous, and loving people. Each year they’ve given so much to the Growing Smiles Foundation, from organizing our annual fundraisers to packing for our annual trips. They even closed their offices for 7 years in a row to join our dental outreach trips to Peru. They are the best listeners, the best advice givers, and also the best dentists I know. I am so grateful and lucky to have their support as I embark on opening my own practice. If they are reading this — I love you all so very much!

Is there a particular book that made an impact on you? Can you share a story?

Eckhart Tolle’s book, “The Power of Now” really opened my eyes and mind to living in the present moment. It took several years before I took my first mindfulness meditation course and I try to incorporate mindfulness into my daily life — and at work with patients, too! One of my goals this year is to practice mindfulness meditation more consistently.

Mindfulness meditation is a mental training practice that gives you tools to slow down racing or anxious thoughts in addition to calming your mind and body. In today’s day and age with all the distractions of cell phones and social media — in addition to the stress of a global pandemic — it is often hard to just pause, relax and not lose yourself in thoughts and worry.

The father of mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn has defined mindfulness meditation as “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.”

Mindfulness meditation cultivates being kind to yourself and others and experiencing life moment to moment. As I mentioned earlier, I use some mindfulness tools with my patients to help them alleviate their anxieties or worries about coming to the dentist and it really helps calm them!

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

My non-profit, the Growing Smiles Foundation, has brought oral health education and comprehensive dental care to thousands of children who would have never otherwise seen a dentist. The Foundation has touched the lives of so many through its mission.

Each year we held an annual “Gala for Smiles’’ fundraiser, led by Temple University Kornberg School of Dentistry dental students to help raise funds for our cause. These dental students also fell in love with giving back, and many came to Peru with us multiple years in a row.

Our partnership with University of Peruvian Sciences (UPC) is really unique in that there is sustainability to our efforts and many friendships were formed between dental students in Lima and those from Philadelphia!

As we took numerous Temple University dental students every year on our outreach trips, many students found their passion in treating children while in Peru and went on to become pediatric dentists.

The dental students often said they learned more in one week in Peru than in an entire year in dental school. While an exaggeration, it’s true that the one-on-one instruction from the incredible supervising dentists did help the dental students learn SO much dentistry during the outreach trip. There is even a Peruvian dental student from UPC who is now in a residency in the United States, in part because of our cross cultural partnership.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story about how that was relevant to you in your own life?

“If you think you are too small to make a difference, you have never been in bed with a mosquito” — Dalai Lama

As a child, when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would just simply say “I want to change the world.”

Throughout my life, I was looking for something HUGE that would enable me to accomplish my goal of changing the world.

It was when I first went to Peru and met the smiling children at the orphanage (who were having the best time making fun of my Spanish because I took French in school!), I realized even if I helped one child there I would be making a huge difference.

Now I say we are changing the world, one smile at a time. In the first week that our office was open in Narberth, we had parents tell us every day that it was the best dental visit their child ever had. Many children walk through our doors anxious about the dentist and leave a short while later smiling, happy and relaxed. That’s the Growing Smiles difference :)

I am also so excited about our partnership with GET Cafe in Narberth to support their mission of social inclusion for neurodivergent individuals with every new patient that comes to our office.

Can you share your top three oral hygiene tweaks” that will help people look and feel great?

  1. From the very first tooth that comes in the mouth, it’s time to start brushing with a rice-sized or smear amount of fluoride toothpaste. For children ages 3 and older, a pea-size amount of fluoride toothpaste is recommended!
  2. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends the first dental visit by the child’s first birthday. It’s similar to a well-baby check up and helps promote lifelong healthy dental habits for your child. It is also important to see a pediatric dentist, as pediatric dentists have two years of additional training beyond dental school to become experts in treating children.
  3. Many people do not realize that what often contributes to decay is in-between meal snacking. Complex carbohydrates like chips, cookies, crackers, pretzels, and cereals break down to sugar in the mouth and contribute to cavities just like a lollipop would. The bacteria in the mouth interact with the sugar and make an acid, and that is how cavities form. If a child (or adult) is grazing or eating all day long, the teeth never get a break from the acid attack. It’s better to choose healthy snacks in between meals — like cheese, yogurt, fruits and veggies — and limit sugary, sweet, starchy foods to mealtimes (if at all!) Also, if you or your child is going to eat something sugary, sweet or starchy, it’s best to finish it all at once in a short period of time versus snacking on it for a while, in order to limit the acid attack on the teeth.

Ok thank you for all of that. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful Career As A Dentist” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Build an amazing team with strong values, high ethical standards and a passion for great customer service. Hiring individuals with values that align with your own is really important. It is also important to create a warm, inviting atmosphere for both your staff and your patients. Cultivating an environment where your staff loves coming to work is vital as it will be translated to the patient experience as well. My parents have had many of their staff members working with them for over 20 years and I truly believe it is because of their positive work environment and the high caliber of individuals they hire. Everything is rooted in customer service and kindness. The first interaction parents and patients have is with your front office, and many patients will leave practices if they feel that they were not spoken to nicely or had a bad interaction with a staff member. Choosing the right people and training them on how to communicate with patients and how to treat patients is key.
  2. Be open, honest and genuine. Being open, honest and genuine means doing the right thing even when no one is watching and treating every patient like they are your own child. Being genuine helps foster strong relationships with parents and children. I have a unique ability to connect with children of all abilities and I think it’s because of my open personality — what you see is what you get — and I think children feel that from the moment they meet me.
  3. Create a fun and caring environment. It is so important to have a friendly, fun and caring environment, especially for children with dental fears and anxiety surrounding dental visits or for children with special needs. From the moment a child walks through our door, our staff welcomes them with a warm hello and gives them a tour of our beautiful space with its bright, cheerful colors and a wide selection of exciting toys! Having an office that is 110% geared towards children is important to me because it helps kids build positive memories at the dentist, which will help them look forward to their visits and become great adult dental patients.
  4. Educate parents and patients and give them the skills they need for optimal oral health. It’s one thing to treat cavities and gum disease, but it’s another thing to prevent these disease processes from occurring. I love spending time with patients and parents educating them on why and how cavities form and teaching them the proper skills to achieve optimal oral hygiene. My children are 2 and 3.5 years old, and along the way I have gathered some tricks and tips to brush their teeth that I happily share with families in my office.
  5. Stay active in dental study groups and keep up to date on the cutting edge of new technologies in dentistry. Dentistry is a constantly changing profession, and it is imperative to stay up-to-date with current evidence-based literature and procedures that will help my patients. The best clinicians I know are constantly learning and seeking out continuing education in the field. Being a part of dental study groups is also excellent for a team approach to dentistry and helps when your patient needs to be referred to a specialist or another provider.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I believe everyone (even kids!) should take some classes in mindfulness meditation. Given our fast-paced lives and our fast-paced thoughts, taking time to just sit, relax and be, is so important. There is a growing amount of research showing that mindfulness can help relieve anxiety and stress, decrease depression, lower blood pressure, reduce chronic pain, improve sleep, improve mental health, improve memory, improve physical health, and so much more.

My husband and I have taken a couple courses with Jefferson University Hospital’s Myrna Brind Center for Mindfulness and they have been amazing! https://hospitals.jefferson.edu/departments-and-services/mindfulness-institute.html

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

My husband and I have recently been on a “Seinfeld” kick, and I would LOVE to meet Jerry Seinfeld or Julia Louis-Dreyfus!! Maybe they could come test out our slide :)

What is the best way for our readers to follow you online?

We are active on Instagram and Facebook @growingsmilesmainline

Thank you so much for these wonderful insights!

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