came to me in the kitchen, mirror in hand, and complained about
“this plaque on my front tooth”. Her dentist had warned her
about just such a scourge, and she was worried that it could
cause a “carry”. It wouldn’t have been so funny but she
was only seven years old.
Dr. Piranit Kantaputra, Dr. Nik, is her
dentist and colleague in health care. She believes every good
word he says about dental health, nutrition and life style
habits. They consult before each examination. How old are you
now? Are you flossing and brushing regularly? What do you think
about this preventive treatment or that one? How do you feel
about possible orthodontia in the future?
He dresses for the dental clinic in Captain
Kangaroo suits, surprising his tailor when he first described
what he wanted. No white coat here, no suit and tie. The
atmosphere he has created is relaxed. There are stuffed animals
on the ceiling of his treatment room. “Look at the Pooh bear
so I can check your teeth.”
A dental assistant may shuffle in wearing
slippers that look like brightly colored mops. Multiple pairs of
sunglasses are also neatly lined up for his patients to wear to
deflect the uncomfortable lights. Every child chooses a pair.
Six drawers are filled with little treats when the work is over.
(No candy!) Even the children who didn’t do so well have the
fun of choosing among the options. Dr. Nik maintains they did
well despite what their parents may think. Kids love to choose,
observes this pediatric dentist extraordinaire. His clinic is a
child’s territory, and every child who walks through the door
Dr. Piranit is a native of Chiang Mai. His
parents moved from Bangkok so that his father, a physiologist,
could teach at the new Faculty of Medicine at Chiang Mai
University. He was born on the grounds of the university, and
apparently thrived in an academic environment. He graduated from
Montfort College, and then completed the six-year dental program
at Chiang Mai University Faculty of Dentistry. Not content with
that, he then went to the United States and studied at the
University of Minnesota for two years of specialization as a
Part of his work at the University of
Minnesota involved learning the highly technical skills of a
forensic dentist; in particular estimating the age of youngsters
who had no birth records. Hill tribe refugees had settled in the
Minneapolis area, and he assisted the courts in estimating the
ages of children who were being adopted. Because of poor
nutrition, refugee children are often much smaller and slower in
their development than other children. The technique utilizes a
panoramic dental x-ray and an x-ray of the left wrist, and is
reliable to within several months.
Dr. Nik also does research into how children
think. Parents will be curious about his findings. He targets
behaviors encountered in his dental practice, asking children to
view videos and report their feelings about them. Do the videos
scare them? Do they feel safe? Is there a way to prevent their
fearing dental work?
A fortuitous meeting with an amazing
professor of dentistry added an unexpected dimension to young
Dr. Nik’s life. Dr. Robert S. Gorlin, a world-renowned expert
in craniofacial anomalies and university genetics researcher,
became his mentor for two additional years of training in
medical genetics. Recently honored by the American Society of
Human Genetics with its Award for Excellence in Human Genetics
Education, now retired Professor Emeritus Dr. Gorlin continues
to teach, do research and consult.
As a professor and mentor, Dr. Gorlin
inspired in his student a lifelong love of genetics research.
Since returning to Thailand in 1991, Dr. Nik and his research
colleagues have identified seven new genetic syndromes, one of
which is named for him.
Four generations of Chiang Mai people have
been studied who have the Kantaputra Syndrome. Researchers in
England and the Netherlands have recently identified the same
syndrome in their subjects.
I looked around at photographs on the walls
of his office at the Faculty of Dentistry and met his patients,
his mentor, and his work. The child with seventeen toes, the
baby born with her internal organs external to her body, the
infant with a clef palate that splits her whole face in half –
all of them are compassionately there to remind this young
dentist of the puzzles he has yet to solve.
His work in human genetics is both a joy and
a challenge, and has been published in prestigious journals in
the United States and England including The Journal of
Medical Genetics. He considers finding the causes of
congenital abnormalities a service to humankind. His patients
have often suffered terribly because of these accidents of
So you have met Dr. Nik the pediatric
dentist, the forensic dentist, the human behavior researcher and
the medical geneticist. Allow me now to introduce Dr. Nik the
artist. He loves music, movies, and books; but he’s passionate
about travel. He knows parts of the United States better than I
do, and laughingly describes New Orleans as “wild”. An
Put a camera in his hands and you have an
artist’s recording of places he’s been and things he’s
seen. You don’t often see a scene that looks as though it came
out of a guidebook. You can buy a guidebook for that. What you
may see in his photographs is a profusion of pink and green, an
abstract that on closer examination is a close-up of a bed of
coleus. Or you enjoy the tops of church spires and maybe clouds
that look like no clouds you’ve ever seen. This is life
through the lens of Dr. Nik the artist.
Dr. Piranit Kantaputra is a modern day Renaissance man with
an intense curiosity about the human condition, a lightening
fast wit, the eye of an artist and an incredible well of
compassion for human suffering. This interview was all pleasure.