TRURO — Liz Lovati remembers the day one of her employees from Jamaica had an abscessed tooth. The first dentist she called would not help because the employee did not have the money to pay for treatment.
Then Lovati asked Gerry Kinahan if he would help. He said yes immediately.
Lovati looks back on that day now with some sadness, because Kinahan, 65, retired this fall after 39 years of dentistry.
“It’s time,” he said. “My back hurts, my neck hurts, my hands hurt.”
Kinahan has not found another dentist to take over his practice. The 3,000 patients who regularly passed through his North Truro office — its rooms adorned with original art and rock star photos by a Life magazine photographer, his friend and patient Rowland Scherman — must find another dentist to attend to their needs.
That won’t be an easy task. The number of dentists practicing on the Outer Cape has dwindled over the last few years. Outer Cape Health Services has closed its nonprofit dental office, and Dr. Cheryl Andrews, who practiced for decades in Provincetown, has also retired.
“I am a dinosaur,” said Kinahan, a Roslindale native.
Lovati, owner of Angel Foods and Liz’s Café Anybody’s Bar, described him as “a really decent human being.
“It is not about the money for him,” she said. “He wanted to be a community dentist. He was available nights and weekends. He cares about people.”
Becoming a Cape Codder
The funny thing is that Kinahan actually did do it for the money, at least at the beginning. What propelled him through Boston College and then on to Tufts University School of Dental Medicine was noticing that the one dentist living in the working-class neighborhood where he grew up drove a Jaguar, Kinahan said.
“I knew what I wanted,” he said. “I wanted a nice car.”
But Kinahan said life has changed him a lot since that day in 1982 when he packed up his little Toyota shortly after graduating from Tufts and came to Cape Cod. Initially, he worked with other dentists in the mid-Cape. But in 1987, he opened his own practice on the ground floor of his North Truro home. Three children later, he put an addition on the house and moved the dental business there, so the family could spread out.
Kinahan plays the guitar and also learned to surf, became a Cub Scout leader, and served on the Truro Central School Building Committee. His three children, now 32, 30, and 27, formed the center of his life. He has been a single dad for the last 20 years.
“Compared to a lot of the single parents I knew, I had it really easy with a home office,” Kinahan said.
But Lovati, who became Kinahan’s patient in 1993, remembers those days as not quite so relaxed for either of them. She ran into a financial predicament that left her with no income for a time. He asked her for help with child care and dog care, and in exchange he gave her free dental care. Decades later, Kinahan calls Lovati and her staff of mostly foreign workers his “Angel Foods family.”
“When you live in the community, you know who is struggling,” Kinahan said. “Sometimes you cut someone slack, you know?”
His office walls are covered with original work by local artists.
Knowing Kinahan, said his friend and fellow musician Pat Woodbury, “I am sure that a few of those paintings represent a crown or a bridge.”
Careful not to sound holier-than-thou, Kinahan follows the acknowledgement of his generous spirit with an admission. He described a new patient who exclaimed, upon entering his office, “I can’t believe there is a dentist in Truro.”
After talking disparagingly about local tradespeople, she asked Kinahan, “Do you want to call my New York dentist?”
Watching his office assistant become more and more irritated, Kinahan said, he began to tack $10 onto that patient’s bill every time she said something offensive.
Kinahan is adept at being both a dentist and a friend, said Woodbury, who has played guitar among a rotating band of music-makers in Kinahan’s attic studio for 20 years.
“He is super professional and a great dentist, but he is also a great friend,” Woodbury said. “There is nothing uncomfortable about it. It is just natural. The way he runs his dentistry practice is just so old school.”
Though Kinahan did satisfy his quest for a nice car — he bought his first Mercedes at age 45 — he discovered that relieving people’s pain was even more rewarding.
“It’s very, very gratifying,” he said.
The skills necessary to be a good dentist? Excellent eye-hand coordination, attention to detail, and people skills, he said.
Kinahan used to build model ships in bottles. He called dental work “a great, crafty thing. It’s like building a ship in a bottle.”
The people skills are necessary because, of course, most people are terrified of going to the dentist.
Best of all, Kinahan said, has been the chance to get to know the constantly shifting cast of colorful characters who have sat in his dental chair.
“They were just really interesting, or fun, or enjoyable, or crazy as a loon,” he said. “I had drag queens as patients. Famous people. Pulitzer Prize winners, Nobel Prize winners, a world-renowned this or that, TV personalities who had places down here. Retired college professors you could have really interesting conversations with — but only until the Novocain kicked in,” he said.
“Then, you know it’s time to go to work.”