Laura Marceline is a stunning woman. Her dark blond hair flows around almond-shaped hazel eyes set in a chiseled, yet soft face. And her smile, it's gorgeous. Her teeth are perfect: white and straight.
Marceline remembers a time in the not-so-distant past when her teeth were infected and decaying. She applied for a teller position at a local bank. She did well on the interviews and breezed through the tests, but didn't get the job. The only reason: her teeth.
"I didn't see them as bad as they were," said Marceline, 42. "It was a real bummer. At first it made me angry; then it made me self-conscious."
Marceline eventually stopped smiling and laughing. She began hating the teeth that caused her mental and physical pain.
"I felt lousy and tired all the time," said Marceline. "I took a lot of antibiotics. It was getting hard to eat. I had a lot of pain."
Several of Marceline's teeth were in various stages of decay. Many had already been extracted; others were on their way out. Although she was a young woman in her early 40s, she appeared 10 years older.
Then her life changed. In early summer, the woman who denied her the job at the bank, gave her an ad that was running in the Roundup. Payson Dental Care was seeking candidates for an extreme smile makeover. Perhaps, the woman told Marceline, she would consider applying.
The next day Marceline marched into the dental office and asked the staff, "How do I win this contest." They gave her the requirements -- write an essay, and provide mugshots and close-up photos of teeth. Marceline went home and wrote about her life and she talked about the bank job. She took pictures of her face and her teeth and submitted them the next day.
Weeks later, Marceline, a waitress at Tiny's Restaurant, couldn't wait to finish her shift and go home. But they wouldn't let her leave.
"I was at work one day and I was annoyed because they were keeping me late," said Marceline.
The next thing she knew, the staff of Payson Dental Care and the panel of contest judges barged through the doors carrying a bouquet of balloons.
Marceline had won the contest. She was getting a new look, and a new life.
The National Institutes of Health report that two-thirds of American adults ages 35 - 44 have lost at least one tooth to decay. More than half of Arizonans below the poverty line, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, had not been to the dentist in the past year while 20 percent of Arizonans have lost all their teeth as a result of periodontal disease and deficiencies in oral hygiene. For many with limited resources, like Marceline living on a waitress' wage, dental maintenance can be a luxury, especially at an average cost of $480 per visit according to the Department of Health and Human Services' Medical Expenditure Panel Survey.
Dr. Chris Winterholler, co-owner of Payson Dental Care, started work on Marceline's mouth in late July of this year.
"There was something about Laura that really struck me," said Winterholler referring to her prior dental work -- fillings and partials. "At some point she had been well taken care of. Her decline had been so dramatic. Her teeth had deteriorated to almost the point of no return.
"She'd arrived at a point where the only other option would have been to take her teeth out and have dentures."
And yet, even with Marceline's failing oral health Winterholler knew he could help her.
"She had a lot of potential," he said.
Marceline reflected back to a time in her life eight years ago before things became so complicated. She had indeed been well taken care of. She had a nice life in the Bay Area. She always had money. She owned a clothing store. She had a family.
Then her older brother, David, became gravely ill. She moved to Ash Fork, Ariz. along with her mother to care for her ailing sibling.
"There was nowhere to work in Ash Fork," recalled Marceline. "There's a gas station on each end of town. The only place to work was a truck stop. That's where I started my waitress career."
As David's illness progressed, Marceline devoted less time to herself. Any extra time in her schedule was spent serving ham and eggs for $2.13 an hour.
"He had nobody to take care of him," said Marceline. "My teeth were way down on the totem pole. As they would go bad, I would have AHCCCS pull them."
Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System's dental coverage is limited. According to Winterholler, AHCCCS covers the bare minimum -- mostly emergency procedures like extractions.
Each time Marceline left the dental office -- minus a tooth -- her appearance was different, but she didn't notice. She likened the changes to aging.
"It's a gradual process. I never noticed that I looked this way," said Marceline.
The Extreme Smile Makeover Contest drew in 42 applicants from all walks of life. The advertising campaign began in early summer of this year. Five panel member, all of whom had experienced full-mouth reconstructions, were given the task of choosing one person to receive $30,000 worth of dental services.
"Our committee was so awesome, " said Payson Dental Care office manager, Gail Sachak. "They took it very seriously."
The panel pored over life stories; some scrawled on notepaper, others typed neatly on white copy paper. All desperate to improve their appearances and well-being.
There were letters from businessmen: "My upper teeth are worn down to the stubbs ... this condition has affected my speech ... there are times when people don't understand what I'm saying."
Housewives wrote in: "I was diagnosed with a rare illness. The doctors gave me two to eight weeks to live. Through an aggressive course of treatments I've been given a second chance at life. My two front teeth are caps and I've developed an allergy to the metal posts, which causes my teeth to turn blue."
Reformed drug addicts looking for a second chance: "As a child I had good dental care ... I was already doing drugs which I suppose was starting the decline in my teeth ... During years of drug abuse, I managed to keep a job, but neglected my health."
And from grandmothers: "I am a 45-year-old grandmother of six ... I was 16 the last time I went to a dentist ... I am very self-conscious about my smile ... We don't have the means to do so (go to the dentist) because I always put the kids first."
The panel chose five finalists who received an exam, full mouth X-rays and a professional cleaning.
According to Winterholler, the panel ultimately decided on Marceline because she had the best chance for restoration without major surgery.
"She wasn't the worst case," said Winterholler. "But she had a lot of potential."
Winterholler started by removing three bad teeth and doing a full periodontal cleaning. Gum disease, he said, is the leading cause of tooth loss in American adults.
"We removed five to 10 years worth of tartar beneath the gum line," said Winterholler.
Then, Winterholler prepped Marceline's mouth for implants, bridges and crowns.
"I did it the way I'd want it done in my own mouth," said Winterholler.
Part of that reconstruction involved rebuilding Marceline's bite. When her treatment began, according to Winterholler, Marceline's canines -- the pointy front teeth that serve as the bite's foundation -- were gone, making her face collapse, which is why Marceline appeared older.
Winterholler committed to reconstructing this portion of Marceline's mouth first, giving her instant results.
"I immediately looked better," said Marceline. "The whole time I felt like a painting. I felt like a work in progress. It was really cool."
Marceline's transformation over the past five months is remarkable. Not only has her self-image improved, she's smiling and laughing.
"I feel beautiful again. I feel totally different." said Marceline. "My boyfriend would say, ‘You have no sense of humor,' because I didn't laugh out loud because my teeth would show."
Marceline said this gift from Payson Dental Care is a blessing.
"You expect to feel like a charity case and I never felt that way. They made me feel special," said Marceline. "I don't even know how to say, ‘Thank you,' to them."
Marceline stressed that she experienced no pain during her treatment and encouraged even the most fearful to visit the dentist.
"It was an honor to complete treatment for Laura," said Winterholler speaking on behalf of the staff at Payson Dental Care. "We plan on making the contest an event every other year or so. I've been taught that cosmetic dentistry can change a person's life. Laura is proof that can happen."
For more information, call Payson Dental Care at (928) 474-2200.