All-on-6” may sound vaguely like something you could hear in Vegas, but it’s a phrase San Antonio dentist Dr. Li Luo Skelton loves and uses often. And it has nothing to do with gambling. The term describes a dental reconstruction procedure that uses six titanium implants to serve as anchors for a permanent porcelain denture. It’s a last resort option for people with multiple missing teeth or teeth that have deteriorated beyond the help of regular dentistry. The results can be amazing a full mouth of strong new teeth. “The reason I like it is because it changes your smile right away,” says the Chinese-born dentist, whose patients call her Dr. Li. “Your appearance changes in a single visit. It can be life changing for our patients. They begin to smile again.”
On this particular spring morning, Dr. Skelton takes us along as she checks on two patients who already have had the implant surgery. She explains that her patients come from all age groups, not only from the older set, and the first patient we visit with confirms that. Only 30 years old, Adam allowed his natural teeth to deteriorate from bad eating habits and poor oral hygiene, he tells us, but Dr. Skelton jumps in to correct him. Some people just have genetically vulnerable teeth, and/or harbor an overabundance of bacteria in their mouths that they are not always aware of, she comments, while checking Adam’s bite.
Since he underwent the operation only five days earlier, Adam’s jaws are still a little sore, but he’s not complaining. “I feel a lot happier. I don’t have to worry about hiding my teeth all the time,” he says quietly. The treatment is a gift from his Austin-based mother, who researched similar services in that city and found them all overpriced. So mother and son eventually chose Dr. Skelton’s San Antonio Dental Implant and Smile Center, whose prices they found more palatable.
Though they look good, Adam’s new teeth are temporary. The idea is to give the patient the time to get used to his new jaws and for the doctor to make all the necessary adjustments before the permanent set is put in — in Adam’s case, probably in three months. “When I get my permanent teeth, can I have them whiter?” he asks. No problem! “Go and enjoy life,” the doctor tells him as he leaves the room. The second patient is a 61-year old businessman who decided on implants when his dental bridges became loose and started “flopping around.” That caused him no small embarrassment when he went calling on customers. Gum disease runs in the family, he says, and all his teeth needed to be extracted. Altogether, it took eight months before all the adjustments were finalized, but he is now one grateful, enthusiastic patient. He calls the doctor “the surgical goddess” and is more than happy to take a picture with her and the clinic’s staff.
Dr. Skelton then takes us on a tour of her large facility on Broadway, which includes multiple examining rooms, operating rooms, a lab where artificial teeth are fabricated, hightech diagnostic equipment and office spaces. Though she and partner Dr. Luis Galvan employ 46 people and have several other dentists working for them, her own office is very modest, a small room with a desk, bookcase and a few chairs. Numerous pictures of her and her family, showing them in Dr. Skelton’s hometown of Liuzhou in Southern China. She was invited back to present seminars on implants and actually worked on four patients, including the city’s mayor. A program to bring Chinese dentists here to train in her office is in the works, but the first expected group is having visa problems right now, she notes. She also performed the procedure on her own father, who now lives with her here in San Antonio. Altogether, the clinic Dr. Skelton founded in 1995 treats about 300 implant patients a year. It’s a rather expensive treatment about $11,500 per arch (jaw) but “our prices are the best in the country,” and monthly payments can be arranged. “I want this to be accessible to everyone who needs it,” says the enthusiastic dentist. Being a shrewd businesswoman as well, she has plans to expand the practice further and make San Antonio a medical destination for other Americans in need of implant-supported jaw reconstruction.
A NEW LIFE IN AMERICA
Born in 1960, Li Luo was only 7 when the Mao Zedong-orchestrated Cultural Revolution started turning things upside down in China. Despite the fact that her surgeon father and engineer mother were soon dispatched to labor camps to be re-educated, no one around her even thought of protesting. “We all followed Chairman Mao as a god,” says Dr. Skelton. “We didn’t question him.” Li and her brother continued going to school, where she was very active on all fronts, from leading other kids in their morning exercises, to sports, singing and “social work,” such as helping in restaurants. She didn’t know it then, but her father was “suspect” in the eyes of the Maoists because his father was a prosperous businessman in Malaysia. Both parents returned home at night but never criticized what was going on. Still, there was tension between them, as her mother eventually became skeptical about the whole reeducation propaganda effort, while her dad strived to “reform himself.” By 1972 they were back home for good, and her father finally “proved” himself to the powers-that-be when he risked his life to help rescue victims of the 1976 earthquake. Though she always “found something happy to do,” Dr. Skelton remembers bullets flying across the Liu River bridge as the infamous Red Guards and people resisting their terror fought each other in 1977, the year she graduated from high school. A relative was beaten to death at that time.
“After graduation, I was sent to the country to be re-educated,” she recalls. “We grew vegetables and worked in rice fields. It was very hard work, but fortunately, I spent only two months there.” Because she had hurt her foot, her father obtained a one-month sick leave for her that she used to prepare for college entry exams. After 10 years, universities were reopening their doors to people like her, and she studied hard to get in. She eventually graduated from the five-year dentistry program at West China University Dental School and later earned a master’s in 1987. Altogether, she practiced dentistry in China for seven years before taking advantage of an opportunity to join a research project on bruxism and TMJ (disorders of the jaw joint and muscles) at UT Health Science Center here. Before leaving her homeland, however, she witnessed more bloodshed as the pro-democracy movement of 1989 was crushed by the military.
Dr. Skelton’s first impression of America was one of space and freedom. Her cousin took her to see the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, where she first landed. “I could see the Pacific Ocean and the beach below, and there was only one woman with her dog there! It was so beautiful and unreal to me. In China, you are always crowded by people, everywhere. Standing there (above the beach), it was me and nature. I love America. When I go back to China, I enjoy the intimacy, but when I return here, I have myself back.” After the UTHSC project lost its funding, the young woman opened an acupuncture office because she wasn’t licensed to practice dentistry in Texas. Then, thanks to a fortunate turn of events, in 1995 she was allowed to pass the dentistry licensing exams, and with support of her then in-laws, established her first dental clinic.
Along the way, Dr. Skelton married twice, once in China and once here, but both marriages ended in divorce. She has an 18-year-old son with her second husband, Joe Skelton, who recently moved to Vietnam, where her son is also spending a year. Family is important to her. Though her mother succumbed to cancer, the rest of her Chinese relatives are now living in North America. Her half-sister and her husband own a restaurant in town, while her brother is currently working in Canada.
“I feel I am so blessed,” says the vivacious dentist. “I am grateful to have a companion. I own a strong business. I am proud to be a small businesswoman … It’s not just about money. I know we need money to run the business, but my practice means so much more to me than money. I have the need to be needed, and my patients need me. I so belong here. I love San Antonio!”