Driving home from Niagara Falls nearly 20 years ago, Eli Eliav DMD passed Rochester on the Thruway.
He remembers turning to his wife and saying, “You know, here in Rochester is one of the best places in dentistry in the world.”
He was just beginning his career in dentistry then. He had brought his wife and two young children from Israel to the United States for two years so he could do a research fellowship at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland.
“If anybody told me that 20 years later I’ll be the director of this institute, I would think that you are crazy,” Eliav, 53, says. “Impossible.”
Yet in 2013, Eliav was recruited to head the Eastman Institute for Oral Health here in Rochester and serve as vice dean for oral health at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry.
He supervises the institute’s 536 people, including 125 dentists enrolled in postdoctoral training programs and 135 faculty. He also manages the clinical side of the institute, which provides dental care for low-income and special needs populations at a dozen locations around Rochester. The clinics had more than 143,000 patient visits last year.
This is the culmination of a long and steady professional climb that Eliav says he never foresaw.
“It’s all happening,” he says, sitting in his cozy office in the Eastman Institute building next to Strong Memorial Hospital. “I don’t know. I mean, things in life do happen. It’s not a plan.”
Thirty years ago, his friend Avishai Sadan DMD recalls, Eliav was just like him. They were two guys from working-class families admitted to the exclusive Hebrew University Hadassah Medical School, studying as hard as they could just to prove they belonged, Sadan says.
“We thought we’re going to get discovered, just two idiots from nowhere,” Sadan says, “and they’re going to send us back to where we came from.”
Far from it.
Sadan is now dean of the Ostrow School of Dentistry at the University of Southern California.
After dental school, Eliav spent four more years doing a residency in oral medicine. Then, rather than settling down for a career as a specialty dentist, he earned a master’s degree and doctorate in nerve injury and neuropathic pain.
“You are paid very little (in graduate school), so I had a private practice in the afternoons, like, between 6 to 10 in the evening,” Eliav says. “In order to pay the bills, I did shifts at my hospital, a small community hospital where I used to live. … But it was so interesting. It was wonderful.”
He took the NIH fellowship during graduate school then returned to Israel to finish his studies.
Eliav moved to the United States a second time in 2004 for a sabbatical at New Jersey Dental School, now Rutgers School of Dental Medicine, intending again to return to Israel.
“I thought that I have the best life I can imagine there,” Eliav says. “I was vice chair of a big department in Hadassah (Medical School).”
But the New Jersey Dental School offered him an endowed chair to do research, he says, “and I thought, ‘this is wonderful, too.’”
Soon he was named director of the division of orofacial pain.
“When there was an opportunity to move him up to a higher-level leadership position within the school here, it was a no-brainer,” says Cecile Feldman, dean of Rutgers School of Dental Medicine.
Eliav has a calm, collaborative leadership style, Feldman says, and he is good at bringing people together.
“Everybody wanted to work with him,” she says. “If there’s some decision that needs to be made, even if he wasn’t able to decide in your favor, you knew that he listened and he was seriously thinking about all the concerns that you had voiced.” Sadan, his dental school friend, says the same thing.
“That’s a guy who never stepped over anybody’s body to get to where he is,” Sadan says. “It’s not only that he can make tough decisions but, by choice, this guy will choose to take a slightly longer route to make sure that people are buying into a vision, and do the right thing.”
Since their school days, Sadan says, Eliav has been a quiet and diligent worker and a level-headed, thoughtful leader.
“I think a lot of his strength comes from his quiet demeanor,” Sadan says. “He gets things done without ruffling any feathers, just having a plan and executing it.”
As the years went by, recruiters started calling.
“I never thought that I wanted to go,” Eliav says. “I had my lab there. I had 22 students. I had a department with 110 people, seven divisions. It was good.”
Yet two recruiters were persistent, one of them from the Eastman Institute.
It took only one visit to Rochester, Eliav says, to change his mind.
“There was immediate click,” Eliav says.
Mark Taubman, now CEO of University of Rochester Medical Center, was chairman of that search committee.
“He has the perfect personality for a leader—a mixture of infectious enthusiasm and drive, with a calm, soft-spoken demeanor,” Taubman says via email.
That is how Eliav found himself in the position he could not have imagined 20 years ago: at the head of Eastman Institute.
“And that’s it,” Eliav says. “So it’s not a big plan.”
Big plans ahead
Eliav does have big plans, however, for the institute.
He sees dentistry as a subspecialty of medicine, just like ophthalmology or dermatology, rather than as a separate discipline. His own research in pain modulation has uncovered mechanisms that are relevant not only to dental pain but also to pain anywhere in the body.
He is passionate about the process that began in 2008 of bringing the hospital’s oral surgery department, the medical school’s Center for Oral Biology and the Eastman Dental clinical practice all under one umbrella.
He would like to see more combined clinics to provide dental care to patients who have complex medical conditions, and more research collaborations between dentists and doctors.
Also, he is overseeing the institute’s expansion of care for poor and special-needs patients. A recent grant is paying for a new wheelchair-accessible SMILEmobile, scheduled to start visiting group homes and nursing homes next spring.
Eliav’s own office, meanwhile, is slated to move elsewhere in the building to make room for a clinic for special-needs patients. Some low-functioning patients with disabilities have trouble opening their mouths for dentists or may have trouble communicating their needs. So dentists sometimes have to clean and repair their teeth under general anesthesia in the operating room. Right now there is a three-year wait for this sort of care.
“When we have the special clinic where they know how to treat them and how to help them, we can reduce the number of patients that need the OR,” Eliav says. “And it’s better for them. It becomes an experience that is not so terrible.”
Building that new clinic would take less than a year, Eliav says.
“We just need to work on the funds to make it happen,” he says. “It will happen. We have no doubt.”
In addition, Eliav is working to create new training programs for dentists who want to learn new skills but are not able to enroll in the full residency program.
Also, 2017 will mark 100 years since Eastman Institute began as a dental dispensary funded by George Eastman, so there is a centennial celebration to plan.
In addition to administrative duties, Eliav maintains his own research laboratory staffed by two postdoctoral researchers—not typical for a college dean. He spends his Saturdays editing an academic dental journal, Quintessence International.
And, Feldman notes, Eliav still mentors some former students in New Jersey.
“The folks in Rochester should know how lucky they are to have him there,” she says.
Eliav has proven to be great at recruiting talent, Taubman says, and he has reinvigorated Eastman Institute’s educational programs and improved the institute’s finances.
“Eli also is a complete delight as a colleague,” Taubman says, “and as such has been able to enhance the role of the Eastman Institute throughout the medical center and the university.”
Julie Kirkwood is a Rochester-area freelance writer.
Eli Eliav DMD
Position: Director of the Eastman Institute for Oral Health
Education: Bachelor of medical sciences, 1988, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel; DMD, 1991; M.S., 1998, Ph.D., 2005, Hebrew University Hadassah Medical School
Family: Wife, Dorith; son,Tomer, 24; daughter, Rotem, 22
Interests: Oil painting, exercise, reading, listening to music, attending the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra with his wife
Quote: “You know, here in Rochester is one of the best places in dentistry in the world.”
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