ALEXANDRIA, VA—”I wouldn’t smile or would cover my mouth because my teeth were so bad.” That’s how single Annandale mom of two D.J. Rockow has lived since being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2011. The steroids and other medications she started taking to cope with the autoimmune disease took a toll on her teeth. Sometimes her teeth would break in half; other times they would break off.
With no dental insurance and remedies estimated at tens of thousands of dollars, multiple sclerosis treatment and two kids to take care of, “my [dental care] isn’t going to be my first priority,” she said.
When she noticed Alexandria dental office Old Town Smiles advertising a free dental makeover contest for a deserving mother, Rockow joked about entering. Little did she know her daughter, Emi Potter-Rockow, was serious about entering.
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While Rockow says Emi is usually not fond of writing, she produced a moving essay on why her mother deserved the dental treatment. “No matter how bad she feels or how much she’s hurting, she never fails to put everyone else before herself,” reads the essay.
Asked about her daughter’s message, Rockow tells Patch, “There’s nothing I would put before my kids. They are my entire world.” But when Rockow was selected as the winner, it was finally time to put herself first.
Living with Multiple Sclerosis
Rockow, 39, had struggled with migraines since she was young, but one morning she woke up with such a severe headache, she couldn’t stand up or speak.
She was rushed to the emergency room, where doctors told her to see a neurologist. Blood tests and MRIs confirmed she had multiple sclerosis. “It was not anything we ever suspected,” she told Patch.
With this diagnosis came significant changes to the busy mom’s life. Before she had been “constantly on the go with the kids” and had to “learn to slow down.”
Living with multiple sclerosis means Rockow can feel fine one day but can barely get up and move the next day. Her condition could even change hour-to-hour, particularly when her body reacts to extreme heat or cold outside. “Everything has to be planned out so I can get enough rest,” she says.
For a night out with her friends, Rockow says she has to take it easy all day and get at least a three-hour nap. While she cannot work due to the constant issue of fatigue, the mom stays busy with her two kids. Depending on the day, she can be taking her 10-year-old son, Dutch, to school, going to the doctor and taking her dad to appointments, running around with her daughter, Emi, and helping her son with homework.
On top of that, Rockow struggled with rapid deterioration of her teeth due to low dose chemotherapy and high doses of steroids for her multiple sclerosis, according to Dr. Seema Ahmed of Old Town Smiles.
Ahmed says people with autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis are more prone to dental decay, periodontal disease, candidiasis (fungal infection), profound decrease in saliva, mouth ulcers and burning and angular cheilitis (cracked corners of the mouth). These issues were further exacerbated by her vitamin deficiencies.
Because Rockow was unable to remove her infected teeth in years prior, she would suffer from more frequent flare ups and other symptoms on a daily basis, according to Ahmed. “Providing her this service not only gave her the confidence to re-engage with society and her family, but also provided much-needed relief to some of these flare-ups.”
Makeovers for Patients in Need
Old Town Smiles Drs. Ahmed and Kim Kitchen, who treat numerous patients with lupus, Sjogren’s syndrome, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis, perform about four to six treatments for patients in need nominated by community organizations, staff and patients. Other patients have included a grocery store employee, an artist, a handyman and a woman recently released from prison that served time for a non-violent offense.
“We feel honored to offer a small ray of light to deserving people who feel otherwise hopeless on a daily basis, people who have nowhere else to turn to help them get out of pain, infection, and overall suffering due to their dental disease,” said Ahmed.
Rockow was the recipient of Old Town Smiles’ new Mother’s Day contest. After a consultation, Ahmed performed the dental surgery on Sept. 28, 2017. The procedure including removing 18 decayed and infected teeth, debridement of several bony abscesses due to extreme infection and surgical reshaping of her upper and lower jaw bones to better the outcome with her prosthetic teeth. She was given upper and lower teeth the same day of the surgery.
Rockow tells Patch she was nervous about the procedure due to the risk of infection and strain on her body from her multiple sclerosis. “Thankfully it didn’t send me into a flare up and [I] didn’t get any infection,” she said.
The procedure, estimated at over $20,000, was the main component of Old Town Smiles’ Mother’s Day makeover contest. However, Rockow’s makeover wasn’t complete without some other prizes from local Alexandria partners. She also went to Windsor of Old Town Salon & Spa for hair and makeup, Alexandria Myotherapy for a massage, Enchanted Florist for a flower arrangement, a before-and-after photoshoot with A. W. Davis Photography and a dinner-for-two gift card to Landini Brothers Restaurant.
Learning to “Resmile”
Rockow continues to return for follow-ups and re-fittings of the teeth and counseling on continued oral health. But another thing she’s had to work on goes beyond physical treatment.
Before Rockow was used to not showing her teeth in public or on social media photos. She learned to “re-smile” with her new teeth and now posts pictures of her full smile on Facebook. With encouragement from her family, “I got over that kind of self consciousness. I definitely feel much more confident,” she says.
Since the procedure Rockow had nothing but gratitude for Old Town Smiles. But she also has a message for other people with autoimmune diseases that are suffering from dental problems: “Don’t let fear stop you. It’s definitely worth it all.”
All images via A. W. Davis Photography, courtesy Old Town Smiles. Pictured in the main photos: DJ Rockow after the dental makeover (first and second photos) and before (third photo)