In 1974, when Mark Kilcollin, DDS, was fresh out of the WVU School of Dentistry, he decided to set up a practice in rural Union, West Virginia.
Monroe County, population 12,000, in the southeastern corner of the state, had not had a dentist for about 10 years and patients had to travel many miles for dental care. So Dr. Kilcollin, a Charleston native, decided it was his way to serve his home state.
“I was a single guy, and I thought it would be good for me to give back a little bit, sort of in the spirit of the 60s, and maybe to assuage my misgivings about being given two student deferments from service in Vietnam,” he said.
Mark figured he would stay in Union for just a couple of years, then move back to the city where his maternal grandfather had been a dentist. But then he fell in love – with the charms of the countryside and with a beautiful girl who had grown up on a dairy farm in Union. Debbie and Mark were married and settled in Monroe County. His dental practice has grown to include their daughter, Katie Kilcollin, DDS, a 2009 graduate of the WVU School of Dentistry.
“It’s been really rewarding for me to see Katie grow in her skills and abilities,” Mark said. “She’s really to the point now where she has surpassed me. I don’t feel like I’m much of a mentor anymore; she’s certainly able to fly on her own.”
Both Kilcollins have taken multiple hours of continuing education to expand their skills and keep the practice up to date, offering sedation and surgical placement of implants as well as the basics.
“We have cutting-edge technology and techniques. We had completely digital x-rays and patient records in 2005, ahead of 96 percent of the country. Our practice uses the most aesthetic materials and techniques available anywhere.”
On a busy day at the clinic, Dr. Katie Kilcollin was performing a root canal on a teenager, and Dr. Mark was filling cavities for adults while a WVU dental hygiene student was cleaning children’s teeth.
“It’s a very busy practice. And that’s one of the things that is fairly characteristic of rural practices. There’s a dramatically greater need in rural areas than you would find in the more urban areas,” Mark said.
Since 1992, Mark has been giving back to WVU and its students by serving as a preceptor for students studying to become dentists and dental hygienists.
The students spend several weeks at clinics throughout the state as part of their training. He calls it ‘a win-win-win situation.’ “I enjoy the mentorship with the students, but I also enjoy being able to offer disadvantaged patients the opportunity to have work accomplished at a significant discount. So it helps the students, we’re enriched by working with them, and the community wins as well.”
When he first started to practice in Union, far away from any colleagues, Mark said he did feel somewhat isolated. He would frequently call up to experts at WVU for advice and to an oral surgeon friend in Virginia to compare notes. But in the last few years, since the Internet has reached Union, he stays connected online with dentists across the world who are in similar circumstances. And most of them agree with Mark that it’s the patients who provide the greatest rewards.
“You make very close friends with your patients here, and you do see the generations. I’m fortunate to be in practice now in my 39th year, and I’m treating children of children I cared for years ago.”
Perhaps the best benefit of working in a rural community is the quality of life. After a busy day at the clinic, Mark makes the three-minute commute through the pretty town, past its historic statue of a Confederate soldier, and turns up a narrow country road. That road leads to his lovely home and farm, where he raises 199 head of beef cattle. His family enjoys tennis, golf, skiing and entertaining friends. He said his colleagues back in Charleston talk about retiring to the country someday to live on a farm. Mark has been living the dream for nearly 40 years.
“I would encourage students to consider practicing in rural areas. You know that on a day-to-day basis that you are helping and impacting people’s lives and are providing a service that without you probably wouldn’t be done.”