Call goes out for dentists to make house calls in Massachusetts

Ian B. Murphy

Dr. Keith Asarkof stirs up some alginate, a common dental impression material, and affixes it to a mouthpiece. He puts it into Mel Titelbaum’s mouth, hoping to get a decent model of his top teeth. Asarkof needs an accurate impression so his patient’s dentures fit snugly. He did this during his last visit, but the impression didn’t turn out right.

They decide on a shade for the new dentures. Titelbaum offers his dentist a drink. After all, his fridge is just an arm’s length away.

Dr. Asarkof is conducting business in Titelbaum’s kitchen. The patient is a retired dentist who has advanced Parkinson’s disease, and since Titelbaum can’t make it to the office, Asarkof brings his office to him.

This was a simple procedure; Asarkof only needed his headlamp, similar to a miner’s lamp, and a few tools. But if needed, he can drill cavities, make fillings, clean teeth, and do extractions.

“I’m not just going to abandon [my patients] just because they have a disability,” he said.

Asarkof is one of only 33 dentists in Massachusetts who conduct house calls, a number which he finds embarrassingly small. In the most recent quarterly Journal of the Massachusetts Dental Society, Asarkof wrote a letter to the editor pleading for his fellow dentists to take up the practice and help patients that are unable to leave their homes.

“Anything at all that we can do for these nonambulatory patients is beneficial,” Asarkof said in his letter. “The rewards of providing such service will greatly surpass the efforts required to administer it.”

Asarkof usually does one or two house calls a week, going to nursing homes, hospitals and patients' homes like Titelbaum's.

Really, the house calls are an extension of Asarkof’s dental philosophy: the patient’s comfort is the most important thing.

“[It is] mostly to keep people comfortable, keep them able to eat, and keep them feeling good about themselves,” said Asarkof. “A lot of [dentistry] is psychology.”

Asarkof credits his father, Howard Asarkof, for passing down this philosophy to him. He was also a dentist who opened his practice in Lexington in 1958 at 1776 Massachusetts Ave. just above the Lexington Savings Bank.

“My father may not have been the highest [dentist] in the technical aspects, but every patient I ever met loved him because they knew he cared about them,” said Asarkof.

Asarkof grew up in Lexington in an old, large house on Hastings Road. It was clear from early on that he wanted to be a dentist like his father. One day, his father brought home an old dentist’s chair and put it on the third floor.

“He used to bring his sisters up there and ‘fix their teeth,’ supposedly,” said Asarkof’s mother, Eileen. “He wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. It’s all he ever wanted to do.”

Asarkof graduated from Hancock Elementary, then Muzzey Junior High, and then Lexington High School. He attended Brandeis, where he was on the swim team, and then went to Tufts Dental School.

He managed to work with his father right out of dental school, which was beneficial for both of them. Keith got all the know-how and experience from his father. Howard got the energy from his son, something he badly needed, as his ability to deal with a full load of patients was declining. Howard had cancer.

He died in 1987 and his son took over the practice, which by then relocated to the Mews on Muzzey Street. They were able to work together for four years, which Asarkof described as a joy. Those years shaped him as a dentist.

Teri DeStefano has been Asarkof’s office manager for 20 years, joining the practice just after Howard Asarkof died.

“It’s been a pleasure working here for 20 years, and watching the practice grow and things flourish,” she said. “He’s just one of those great guys who doesn’t need to advertise, because his patients tell their friends and family.”

According to DeStefano, just because patients leave the area doesn’t mean Asarkof will lose their business.

“We have patients that have moved to California who fly across the country twice a year to visit family and to go to the dentist,” said DeStefano. “We have people fly in from all across the country. They won’t get their dental work done anywhere else.

“He takes the time to talk to the patients, not just treat him. They love him.”

Asarkof now lives in Carlisle where he has something of a farm with his wife, Judy. They have two dogs, two cats, ducks, chicken, a frog and a rat. During the warmer months, Asarkof will ride his bicycle to work; he says it’s to work off all the chicken Parmesan subs from Mario’s that he eats, which are his favorite lunch.  

He often comes in to work at 6 a.m. to see patients that can’t come in at any other time.

“I love my work,” Asarkof said. “I put in 65 hour weeks. I go home tired, but I can’t wait to get to work in the morning.”