By Brooke Furniss
Joe Higgins, a big fan of the Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry, looks forward to smiling and chewing his way through Italy on his next adventure. Thanks to the dental school, Higgins has received amazing prosthodontic care.
At age 74, he has been a professional actor for more than 50 years, and a bright smile is important in his line of work, particularly for films and commercials. He graduated from Hofstra University with a degree in theatre in 1972. A proud member of Actors’ Equity Association, he worked in New York for many years, appearing on the soap opera “Love of Life,” in commercials and on stage. He moved to the Bay Area 37 years ago and has acted in major roles at regional theatres in San Francisco, Sacramento and the San Jose area.
One of Higgins’ favorite roles is when he dons a red suit and plays Santa Claus every Christmas for hundreds of children in their homes and for seniors in assisted living facilities. He has played Santa for more than 25 years, and even during the pandemic, Higgins managed to keep his streak going by performing as Santa on Zoom. In 2021, to express his gratitude for his favorite student dentist R. Christiaan Allen, Class of 2022, Higgins visited with Allen’s children as Santa via Zoom.
I am being treated by a student dentist, but I feel like I am being treated by the best of dentists!
For Higgins, life with dentures began at the young age of 18 with a partial bridge. He had two large canines that gave him a vampiric look in his headshots. His local dentist pulled them and replaced them with a partial. Over the years, more teeth were removed until, eventually, full upper and lower dentures were in place and lower implants were completed at another dental teaching clinic in San Francisco. These were fantastic improvements. The problem came years later when the lower denture needed replacement and the former clinic’s price was unaffordable.
“Actors in the Bay Area don’t make a lot of money and Medicare Advantage does not provide much in the way of coverage,” said Higgins. “I visited more than four providers before picking one who seemed by appearance acceptable. Let’s just say the experience was ‘horrific.’ After spending more than $2,800 and experiencing unnecessary pain and bruising, I was left with an unwearable, ill-fitting lower denture.”
Higgins serendipitously found out about the Dugoni School of Dentistry one evening when walking his canine companion, Prince Harry, and meeting Sandra Shuhert, director of design and photo services at the dental school, and her dog Tatum. Shuhert recommended he try the dental school clinic after hearing about his past issues with his dentures. Higgins received his properly fitted, fully functioning custom lower denture from the school’s prosthodontic clinic at a price he could afford, and he hasn’t stopped smiling.
His experience with the dental school is the best he has ever had. “I’ve been able to eat things I haven’t been able to eat for over 30 years!” exclaimed Higgins. “I just ate an ‘everything’ bagel for the first time in forever and it was amazing because I didn’t get any of the seeds stuck under my dentures or any pain from chewing.”
A strong advocate for the dental school, Higgins sings the praises of Allen, his student dentist. Higgins shares a special bond with Allen from visiting him every time he goes into the dental school. “Chris is a great doctor and I trust him with everything he recommends. The professors are always supervising him and they really like Chris’s suggestions and his meticulous work,” said Higgins. “I am being treated by a student dentist, but I feel like I am being treated by the best of dentists!” He has never felt safer and more at peace with decisions made by Allen and his team.
“Joe is a great person, and it has been a privilege working with him,” said Allen. “He came in frustrated with his previous denture and it was so rewarding providing him with something he could chew and confidently smile with.”
The school’s clinic is not only affordable, but has provided Higgins with a better and more pleasant oral health care experience. “It’s a safe environment with caring people who are doing the best they can to help you. I recommend the dental school to friends all the time and will continue to recommend Chris Allen for a lifetime.”
He has played Santa for more than 25 years, and even during the pandemic, Higgins managed to keep his streak going by performing as Santa on Zoom. In 2021, to express his gratitude for his favorite student dentist R. Christiaan Allen, Class of 2022, Higgins visited with Allen’s children as Santa via Zoom.
Higgins will be spreading his smile around Europe soon. He’s saving up for a trip to Italy, traveling from north, where his mother’s family comes from, to south where he has old friends. He has visited every continent over the years (keeping a promise he made to himself), but his favorite experience was camping in Antarctica which he describes as “like visiting another planet.” Higgins cannot wait to continue his travels carefree as he no longer worries about issues arising from his dentures.
The dental care provided at the Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry is impressive and in many cases it’s essential to the community it serves. The proof is seen on the smiles of the faces of countless, grateful patients like Joe Higgins.
Brooke Furniss, BA, MA, is a freelance writer from Orange County, California.