Rosenthal, O’Keefe form partnership at Sawtooth Dental
Switching from Pulaskis and parachutes to polishers and probes might seem like an improbable leap, but for Dr. Robert Rosenthal, DDS, the career transition was a logical one.
Prior to attending dental school, the new provider at Sawtooth Dental Care in Twisp spent seven years as a smokejumper at the North Cascades Smokejumper Base, and he says that it was fixing parachutes that inspired him to pursue a career in dentistry.
“At the jump base I spent a lot of time restoring parachutes,” Rosenthal said. “I realized I liked restoration work and thought, ‘I could do restoration work on teeth.’”
When he was ready to stop jumping out of perfectly good airplanes, Rosenthal attended dental school at the University of Washington (UW), graduating in 2021 in the top 10% of his class.
Dental school wasn’t a completely random choice, however, Rosenthal said; there’s dentistry in his family. Rosenthal’s father, Dave, graduated from the UW School of Dentistry in 1980 — coincidentally in the same class as Rosenthal’s new partner, Sawtooth Dental Care founder Dr. John O’Keefe.
Rosenthal said that his parents moved to Tucson to raise him, after meeting at UW and wearying of the rain. “They headed straight to the driest part of the country,” he said.
Rosenthal ran on the cross-country team in high school and said he loved being a part of a team, so when he and a friend were offered an opportunity to join a hotshot firefighting crew (“the recruiters told us ‘you eat steak and make $500/day,’” he said), they jumped at the chance. But Rosenthal wanted to make the really big jumps — out of an airplane, dropping into fires. “We drove around the country to every smokejumper base except the ones in Alaska,” he said.
Rosenthal was hired by the North Cascades Smokejumper Base, where he worked from 2010 to 2017 and where he met his wife, Erin. It’s also where he became aware of Dr. O’Keefe, who in addition to being a dentist is also a pilot.
In retrospect Rosenthal’s involvement in Sawtooth Dental Care seems pre-ordained, but it has really been more a function of timing and serendipity, O’Keefe said.
“I’m coming up on 70,” O’Keefe said. “I’m not ready to retire yet, but I want to be able to travel more often. I’ve been keeping my eye out for the right fit for a partner for a while now.”
O’Keefe’s desire to recreate coupled with increased demand for dental service in the Methow Valley make Rosenthal’s hiring not just a convenience but a necessity. “COVID compounded demand; we had this sudden influx of people,” O’Keefe said.
Then the valley’s other dentist, Dr. Steven Harrop, retired and closed his practice at the end of 2021. “Demand doubled immediately,” O’Keefe said.
The right fit
O’Keefe knew what he was looking for in a dental partner but felt it was important to wait for the right fit. “I wanted a young person who would live locally and be a part of this community,” he said. “I knew I wanted a caring person who would embody the philosophical values of this practice. I wanted someone who understood rural living, who didn’t need the big-city resources, who understood the community assets.”
Then suddenly there was Dr. Rosenthal, newly minted as a dentist and practicing at Family Health Dental Center in Brewster, seeking an opportunity to practice dentistry in the Methow Valley and to raise his 3-year-old son, Will, here.
When O’Keefe purchased a dental practice in Twisp in 2000 he named his new practice Sawtooth Dental Care, as opposed to starting the business under his own name, to ensure its longevity. “I wanted it to be there without me,” he said. “I wanted the practice to be an entity that could exist after my time.”
Rosenthal is poised to become the new face of Sawtooth Dental Care once O’Keefe eventually retires, but for now the two dentists are working in a partnership model. Both are employees of Sawtooth Dental Care, with Rosenthal now owning the business and O’Keefe retaining ownership of the building and infrastructure.
Because Rosenthal is still practicing in Brewster, he will be working in Twisp on Fridays and seven other days through August. The partners are still ironing out the details of how the practice will run once Rosenthal begins practicing full-time at Sawtooth Dental Care in September, including how to bring new patients into the practice once they have the capacity.
In the meantime, “we are playing to our strengths,” O’Keefe said, with both dentists benefitting from the partnership.
“John has great experience with Invisalign, implants, and third molars [wisdom teeth],” Rosenthal said. “I’m learning so much from him and it’s great to bounce ideas off him.”
“I’ve been pining for a partnership,” O’Keefe said. “Practically speaking, having Robert here allows me to focus on Invisalign, implants and other oral surgery, but we have this collegiality that is energizing too.” It has been rewarding working both parallel and in tandem, O’Keefe said, referring to a recent wisdom tooth extraction that the partners completed together.
With so many rural health and dental clinics “corporatizing,” O’Keefe said, it’s important to him and as well as to Rosenthal to retain the “local feel” of Sawtooth Dental Care.
“It has been hard to find someone who values that the way I do,” O’Keefe said. “A lot of young people don’t want to own a business, they just want to practice, work their nine-to-five.” Rosenthal, however, is committed to carrying on Sawtooth Dental Care’s local legacy, from both business and practical angles.
Although both dentists’ primary passion is practicing dentistry, “there’s a joy to creating something,” O’Keefe said, referring to the experience of owning and running a business.
The Rosenthals are fully engaged in this process of finding joy through creating — creating their new life in the Methow Valley. In addition to starting new jobs — Erin works in prescribed fires at the U.S, Forest Service in Winthrop — the Rosenthals secured rental housing in Twisp through a smokejumper connection, enrolled their son at Little Star School, and are training their new German Shepherd. When time allows, they love to hike, camp and fish, exploring on foot the land they used to see from 3,000 feet in the air.
COVID didn’t just increase demand for dental care in the Methow Valley, it also created its own unique set of dental problems. First, since the interruption of dental and other health care during the early months of COVID, many people only recently resumed regular checkups and cleanings, so there is some catching up to do.
Some are still delaying a return to dental care, out of concerns about COVID exposure or simply because their dental routines were interrupted and they lack the momentum to resume. Also, while COVID does not directly affect the teeth, it does cause stress, which has dental implications.
“TMJ [Temporomandibular Joint] clenching issues are rampant,” O’Keefe said. “People are clenching their jaws and grinding their teeth. We’ve been making night guards like pancakes.”
It’s early days still, but Rosenthal is already part of the team at Sawtooth Dental Care, where the rest of the staff has “taken an immediate liking to Dr. Robert,” an email to Sawtooth Dental Care patients said. “He is a good listener, easy to approach and has a great attitude about oral health and how he can help people with their dental needs.”
For more information about Sawtooth Dental Care, visit sawtoothdentalcare.com.