Caring for kids and families, one smile at a time

Dr. Diego Solis in the dental clinic with three staff members
Dr. Diego Solis says he's lucky to work with an awesome staff at the Johnstown clinic. From left, Erica Robles, Stacey Stevens, Gloria Caicedo and Dr. Diego.

At 10 years old, Diego Solis climbed into a dentist’s chair and had a tooth filled for the first time. He doesn’t recall being upset or frightened. In fact, the memory is a happy one.
“I loved it,” he said. “Everything went great.”
Solis soon decided he’d like to fix teeth, too. He stuck to that childhood dream and became a pediatric dentist, leaving his native Panama for a residency in Puerto Rico and, after connecting with an Ohio State University professor there, landing a fellowship at OSU.
The next stop for “Dr. Diego,” as Solis is known to his young patients and their families, was the Johnstown Road Dental Clinic.
That was 18 years ago and he’s never looked back.
“We’ve been working nonstop ever since,” Solis said. “I feel very fortunate. We’re one of the few programs in the United States with a full-scale dental clinic in a preschool.”
The clinic, a part of the OSU Nisonger Center, is housed in the Franklin County Board of Developmental Disabilities Early Childhood Education and Family Center. Nisonger provides an array of programs and services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including dental care. FCBDD partners with Nisonger and helps to fund the busy clinic.
Former Nisonger Dental Services Director Dr. Edward Sterling first championed the effort, Solis said. “He felt that care for this population was an unmet need. He had the vision. But without the support of FCBDD, we wouldn’t be here.”
The clinic handles more than 3,800 appointments each year, many of them to low-income and immigrant families. A sliding-fee scale guarantees that no child, with or without disabilities, is denied care based on ability to pay.
That social-mission nature suits Solis. “My heart is not in private practice,” he said. “My heart is in community service. For some families, we are their only option.”
Dr. Stephen Beetstra, dental program director at Nisonger, said the Johnstown Road clinic is in great hands as Solis develops the program further. A recent gift of $30,000 from the kiDDS Foundation will go toward needed supplies and equipment upgrades to help ensure the best care.
“We at the Nisonger Center are truly blessed to have a dedicated provider like Diego Solis,” Beetstra said. “His career focuses on improving the lives of pediatric patients who have limited access to oral health services and he is a positive role model to patients, coworkers, residents and students.”
In the clinic, Solis and his staff often sing to their young patients. He happily speaks Spanish when providing care for Hispanic families. “I’m kind of like a kid at heart, too,” he said. “It’s not only fixing teeth. It’s touching the lives of children and their families.”
Solis returns to Panama most every year, and his family occasionally visits him. “For them, it was an honor for me to be able to come here,” he said.
In his spare time, Solis enjoys bonsai, the Japanese art of growing ornamental, artificially dwarfed trees and shrubs. He’s used to being both creative and patient – with his hobby and at work.
While many young children breeze in and out of the clinic as happily as Solis did as a child, others protest. Sometimes loudly. They need help moving past their fear.
“We have our bag of tricks,” Solis said, smiling. “And, we have laughing gas.”