Dr. Berry removes the braces off her patient, Laura Coley, 14.
Dr. L. Ruth Berry, a local area orthodontist, began her career back in the day when she was one of only four female orthodontist practicing in the state of Florida.
“When I opened my first practice in Ormond Beach," she said, "they all looked at me and asked, ‘So when are you going to start having babies?’”
She said her stock reply was: “I didn’t go to 12 years of school for that.”
Petite and ballet-dancer slim, Berry, 57, dressed in crisp, pleated trousers and tailored shirt could almost pass for one of her young patients.
She acknowledges at first there may have been some skepticism on the part of some patients’ parents.
“But then I had a lot of moms tell me they would rather have their kids treated by a woman for whatever reason,” she said. “I think in some ways people think we are more compassionate, and maybe we are.”
Before 1960, the United States had the lowest percentage of practicing women dentists in the Western Hemisphere, according to data collected by the Washington University School of Medicine. By the early 1980’s, when Berry began her training, women dentists, let alone women orthodontists, remained fairly uncommon.
“The main thing I encountered was that I needed to be better than the men in order to get some respect, but I knew that when I went in,” she said.
She set up her first practice in the Ormond Beach/Daytona Beach area where she remained for 10 years. In 1995, she moved to Pinellas County and began the process of again establishing a practice in St. Petersburg.
“I wouldn’t suggest that to anyone. It’s kind of a pain,” Berry says.
Today, her main office is in Largo but she has maintained a presence in St. Petersburg where she has a smaller practice. She employs a staff of three full-time and two part-time office assistants, each of whom do a little bit of everything, from working the desk to helping coordinate treatment plans around the office.
She said she sees about 40 to 50 patients a day, “a fairly small practice” compared to other offices which often see twice that number on a given day, she explained.
Office coordinator Carey Locke said she prefers working for a female employer.
“Things run on an even keel here. We read each other. Men don’t have the same understanding of how to run an office with women,” she said.
The mood among orthodontic patients tends to be hopeful, which Berry said makes her work more enjoyable.
“For the most part people are here because they want to be,” she said.
She admitted she did not get her own teeth straightened until after she was in practice. She also offers to fix the not-so-perfect smiles of her office employees.
According to Berry, the graduates from the various orthodontic programs around the country are now close to 50 percent female. The American Association of Orthodontists, of which Berry is a member, estimates that 17 percent of its active members are women.
For young women seeking to enter the profession, but not at the expense of having a personal life, Berry offered encouragement.
“It’s a great profession because you can still have family time, you have babies and you can structure your patient load. You can have a nursery in the back, which you could never do in medicine,” she said.
However, entering the field does require certain traits not everyone possesses.
“They need to be ready to take on some challenges and have a little stick-to-it-ivness. They need to be interested in math and science especially physics because, believe it or not, a lot of what I do is physics, and people don’t understand that’s part of it,” she said.
Berry was born and raised in Homestead, the only child of a mechanic and a church secretary. She said, as a young person, she thought she might want to become a doctor, but a short stint volunteering in an emergency room convinced her otherwise.
“I found out I may not have been the most compassionate person I thought I was. I saw people complaining about small things, and I would think, ‘Oh, just suck it up!’ I also realized the doctors didn’t have much of a life,” she explained.
After high school, she headed for the University of Florida, earning an undergraduate degree in microbiology in 1977 and a graduate degree in dental medicine in 1983. She then attended Louisiana State University’s program in orthodontic certification in 1985.
As it happened, her roommate was in dentistry. She shadowed her to learn more about the field and ended up getting hooked.
Once the decision was made to go into orthodontics, Berry applied to the certification program at Louisiana State University, a rather staid and conservative campus. She was only the second female to attend the school’s orthodontic program
“They really didn’t know what to make of me,” she said.
Many of the school’s professors subscribed to the conventional wisdom that a woman who pursued a professional degree would eventually drop out to get married. She was, however determined to excel, and despite the sexist attitudes espoused by a few instructors, she said she experienced no harassment from male students, nor did she find many stumbling blocks to keep her from successfully completing the program.
She also became the first female from the LSU orthodontic program to become a Diplomate of the American Board of Orthodontics. Board certification involves additional testing and presentation of orthodontic cases to the Board.
Berry spends her down time “enjoying her husband,” a retired hospital administrator. She said they love to fish and boat. She also belongs to the Rotary Club and does a lot of volunteer work on behalf of underprivileged kids.
In 10 or 15 years, she said she envisions winding down, perhaps handing over the reins of her practice to a former patient now in her third year of dental school who has expressed an interest in joining the office.
Berry said she finds her job gratifying.
“You look at someone and think to yourself, ‘Please let me fix that.’ And then you take the braces off, and they smile back, and it’s all worth it,” she said.
Tips for cleaning braces
Braces have become commonplace in many families — about 4 million people receive orthodontic care in the United States each year. Most people undergo orthodontic treatment during adolescent and teenage years, when the permanent teeth have come in and treatment can be most effective.
Yet, as many parents already know, getting teenagers to adhere to a cleaning routine can be tricky. For parents and teens who want to keep the cleanest teeth with braces, follow these tips:
• Brush, brush, brush, brush. Most dentists recommend brushing twice a day if you don’t have braces. That doubles for people with braces. Clean teeth at least four times a day with a soft, rounded-bristle manual or electric toothbrush and a fluoride toothpaste.
• Purchase a travel toothbrush. It’s difficult to brush your teeth four times a day when you’re away from home most of the day. Travel toothbrushes will allow teens to brush their teeth and braces any time throughout the day.
• Get in between teeth. Brushing alone will not remove all of the plaque. Floss between teeth, around brackets and at the gumline at least once every day. Floss threaders help maneuver dental floss between wires, brackets and teeth.
• Use oral care probiotics. Oral care probiotics work by flooding the mouth with beneficial bacteria, which adhere to tooth surfaces, including pits and fissures in the chewing surfaces and those tooth surfaces under orthodontic appliances, and around and under the gum line, leaving less room for harmful bacteria to grow. They can reach areas that brushing and flossing miss.
• Get professional cleanings. A dentist can quickly point out and remind a teenager where they might be falling short in their oral-hygiene and brace-care routine.