by Dorothy C. Nickelson
Concussions have received massive press coverage in recent years as one of the most damaging of sports injuries. In fact, right before the NFL season began this year, the league announced it had reached a $764 million settlement over concussion-related brain injuries with some of its 18,000 retired players. Yet that’s not the only part of the head seriously hurt by the kind of bone-jarring hits that make for spectacular replays but leave some athletes with chronic pain and other brain-related impairments for life.
And that’s why Dr. Edward D. Williams, DMD, a Chestnut Hill dentist, is on a mission to raise awareness about jaw joint science and how it can potentially help those who’ve suffered from concussions and other forms of head trauma. He’s doing that by encouraging people to think holistically about concussions and their potential impact on the fragile bones at the base of the skull.
“When a football or lacrosse player takes a hard hit, the helmet-to-helmet collision can sometimes fracture the fragile bones in the area of the jaw joint while also causing a brain concussion,“ said Dr. Williams, the immediate past Chairman of the National Dental Association, as we winced watching NFL and high school football players clash on the LCD screen in his high-tech office in Market Square.
Worse yet, Dr. Williams, who declined to state his age, said these jaw joint injuries often go undiagnosed, causing athletes to develop further brain-related complications down the road. “It’s essential that we re-think concussion injuries, whether they result from sports injuries, falls or accidents,” he stated. “We need to study and better understand how concussions affect temporal mandibular joints and jaw muscles as they typically are not factored into the current research.”
He points to brain concussion studies paid for by taxpayers and performed with dummy head forms that don’t even have jaw joints or the temporal mandibular joint. This, he insisted, is like conducting impact studies on a leg that doesn’t have a knee or hip joint. Dissatisfied with the current research, he’s conducting his own as part of his Jaw Joint Science Institute, using 3-D digital imaging with the goal of improving the accuracy of diagnosis and enhancing treatment protocol.
“The helmet designs in lacrosse, football and the military for the most part are excellent, with one exception — the chin strap,” he said. “When properly snapped in place, the four-point chin strap system harmfully compresses the mandibular condyle of the jaw joint against the base of the skull. This can actually exacerbate a head injury.”
While the majority of people Dr. Williams has treated have been general dentistry patients and student athletes, some high profile people have come his way following their time in the public eye. ‘What can I say about Muhammed Ali, truly a gentle giant,” he said. “He liked to tell jokes and do magic tricks; he was a lot of fun.”
The Hall of Fame Philadelphia Eagles’ “Minister of Defense,” the late Reggie White, he said, was “a different kind of athlete; he had a lot of substance, cared about people, loved family. He was greatly at peace with himself and loved by many. You don’t find many athletes as comfortable in their own skin as he was.”
Maureen Gallo, of Wyndmoor, a long-time patient of Dr. Williams, had this to say about him: “From beginning to end, your visit to Dr. Williams is always pleasant. It is rare that you hear the words ‘pleasant’ and ‘dentist’ in the same sentence, but that is the case from how you are greeted, his staff, the atmosphere of the office and, most of all, Dr. Williams himself. He did amazing work to cure my dental problems. I am very lucky to have found him.”
What’s little known about Dr. Williams is that his more than 40-year career in the general practice of dentistry almost didn’t happen. As an undergrad with a double-major in biology and chemistry at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, he set his sights on becoming an oceanographer. Then he met one of the few African American dentists practicing in Pennsylvania in the mid-1960s, Dr. Ham Murray. “More than a mentor, Dr. Murray encouraged me to look at dentistry and helped me get an interview at Temple University’s School of Dentistry.”
Edward Williams went on the interview but still wasn’t convinced that the field was right for him or more importantly, that he could get in. Like many dental schools at American Universities during the late 1960s, Temple University had very, very few minorities and women. At that time, another role model, who happened to be an African-American dentist, stepped in to help — Dr. Robert (Bob) Ellis. “Dr. Ellis liked my background,” he recalled, “and was instrumental in my gaining admission to Temple.” Once accepted, Edward Williams was the only black student in the entire dental school of more than 400 students. When asked what it was like at that time, he said, “Horrible! Let’s leave it at that,” and he was reluctant to discuss his experience further.
Following graduation in 1972, Dr. Williams opened his general dentistry practice at Washington Lane and Stenton Avenue in 1973 and moved to his current office at 7700 Crittenden Street in Market Square in 2006, after a fire destroyed the Washington Lane office. During part of that time, he served as Chairman of the National Dental Association, an industry group based in Washington, D.C., which advocates for the needs of dental students of color, and sponsors dental hygiene programs and clinics in communities around the country. Now Chairman Emeritus of the group, Dr. Williams is working with other members on advocacy programs designed to raise the awareness of disparate delivery of health and dental care services in the inner city.
Dr. Williams has also served as a mentor to more than a few aspiring medical professionals at the National Dental Association, in the community and in his own family. His son, Eric, practices general dentistry in Mt. Airy, and Eric’s wife, Nisha, is an R.N. Dr. Williams’ daughter, Kelly Hodges, is an orthodontist married to Erick Hodges, an endodontist, and his youngest daughter, Dawn Jones, is a veterinarian married to Charles Jones, who is also a veterinarian. Dr. Williams’ goddaughter, Fawn Manning, is an obstetrician.
Though he said he’s “busier than a one-armed paper hanger” practicing general dentistry, doing implants and research on jaw joint injuries, Dr. Williams manages to find time to sail, scuba dive and fish. He’s captained a vessel from North Carolina to Martha’s Vineyard a while back and recently went scuba diving in the Cayman Islands and wants to do more of it. “Scuba diving around the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is on my bucket list,” he said.
“But I’m not going any time soon. Patients come first. What’s great about my practice is that I get to serve people and enjoy what I do. You can’t beat that combination … I want to leave the world a little better place than I found it.”
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