College of Dental Medicine graduate returns as donor and patient

March 15, 2023
Studio portrait of a tall man wearing a suit and a woman with short reddish brown hair wearing a black top. Both are smiling.
Lil and John Paxton. Photo provided

Going to the dentist may be one of the most routine things you do. Your dentist probably sends you a postcard or email, inviting you to schedule your next appointment. If you frequent the student clinic at the James B. Edwards College of Dental Medicine, you might even get a text before your appointment. But for some with special needs, the experience of being welcomed back to the dentist’s office on a regular basis may be less common.


John Paxton, DMD, and his wife, Lil, are working to change that. As one of the college’s first graduates, the father of a special-needs daughter and a current patient at the clinic, Paxton has seen firsthand the difference it makes when future dentists gain experience meeting special needs early in their career.

The Paxtons said they’ve always been involved with MUSC in one way or another. A graduate of the James B. Edwards College of Dental Medicine, Paxton supported the university from the Upstate as he ran his dental practice in Greenville. But with their recent move to Charleston, they became aware of the Pamela Kaminski Clinic for Adolescents and Adults with Special Health Care Needs. More than 500 patients with a variety of special health care needs or medically complex needs, ranging from adolescents with autism to seniors with dementia, have called this clinic their dental home.

The mission of the Kaminsky clinic hit close to home for the Paxtons, whose daughter was born with cerebral palsy. After getting an X-ray of her mouth, Paxton also discovered that his daughter didn’t have any adult teeth. As a dentist himself, taking care of his daughter was never a question. But Lil said that’s not the case for all dentists. “A lot of people would not work with special-needs patients,” she said. “John did in his practice because we looked at it differently. It’s about realizing that everybody's unique, and everybody has certain problems and disabilities, and you accept the person as the person is and then work with that individual.” 

Michelle E. Ziegler D.D.S., division director for Special Care Dentistry at MUSC, said that it’s critical for dentists and future dentists to have experience caring for special-needs patients. “Most patients, I would say 80% of patients, can and should be treated in private practice settings,” Ziegler said. “Those patients just require a little bit more TLC, perhaps a little bit more time and just some management skills on the part of the dentist.”

But that doesn’t always happen. Ziegler said some of the patients she sees at the Pamela Kaminsky Clinic for Adolescents and Adults with Special Health Care Needs come from up to three hours away because they haven’t found care that’s closer to them. She encourages those patients to use MUSC’s Special Needs Network of Dentists, known as Project SANDS, to find special-needs dental care providers.

Now, for Paxton, things have come full circle. Since being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Paxton himself has become a patient at the Kaminsky clinic. As an alumnus, a patient and a supporter of the James B. Edwards College of Dental Medicine, Paxton and his wife want to make sure that this is a program that can continue to affect the lives of dentists and patients for years to come.

To that end, they created the Dr. and Mrs. John H. Paxton Special Needs Dentistry Endowment. The fund will provide annual support for special-care dentistry, to help patients who are seen at the Kaminsky clinic. It also gives MUSC students the opportunity to learn how to care for these patients now and in the future.

“It’s an honor to be able to do this,” Lil Paxton said. “Why leave your money to something else? Give it and pass it on in the hopes somebody else will pass it on.”

“I think that it's really just wonderful to see that Dr. Paxton made a gift after going to school here, and having had a child with a disability,” Ziegler added. “He understands the need for services for these patients. And now for him to be in a position to give back to the clinic it is just wonderful."

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