There’s a huge tree growing out of the floor in Hayden Perkins’ Oxford office.
Against one wall, a bank of video game systems, mobile and standard, beckons his eager clients. A huge saltwater aquarium serves as a divider between two waiting rooms.
And as if the furniture in bright primary colors isn’t enough, original artwork and hundreds of photographs brighten the office at every twist and turn. The ceilings are vaulted. It’s airy and full of sunshine.
A large Golden Retriever patrols the halls, collecting love pats, totally unruffled by the commotion and chatter.
And on most days of the week, the Children’s Dental Center brims with 80 to 90 children, from toddlers to teens. Perkins is their pediatric dentist, and his patients come from as far north as Corinth and far south as the deep Delta.
His staff is crazy about him. So are his patients and their parents, especially those whose children cope with health challenges, including autism, paralysis, Down syndrome, seizure disorders and congenital heart failure.
“Special-needs parents are saints,” said Perkins, 38, a 2004 graduate of the School of Dentistry who received his undergraduate degree in biology from the University of Mississippi in 1999.
His practice includes a specialization in caring for disabled patients, and to many of those families, Perkins is likely seen as a godsend: Unlike a lot of dentists in the state, he accepts Medicaid and the state Children’s Health Insurance Program.
“A lot of pediatric dentists just won’t take that. There’s not much money in it,” said Dr. Frances Gordy, professor of care planning and restorative dentistry. “I admire him for taking and treating those patients.”
Perkins stands apart in Mississippi’s pediatric dentistry community, and it’s not just because of the patient-friendly comforts of his office or his choice to care for children from low-income families who may have nowhere else to turn. His career is a calling, and his goal is to educate parents so that all children begin good dental hygiene in their first year of life.
The Hollandale native was in the first kindergarten class that went all the way to graduation at Deer Creek School in Arcola. He was a 15-year-old ninth-grader when the truck he was driving flipped, robbing him of the use of his legs. Perkins enrolled at Ole Miss, but had no immediate plans for dental school.
“I started off in computer science, of all things, because someone told me it would be good for someone in a wheelchair,” Perkins said during a chat in his private office, a comfy lair that shows off the fruits of his family hunting trips.
“I took my first calculus class. That cured me.”
But he loved biology and chemistry, and soon found himself shadowing Dr. Andrew Abide Sr., his dentist in Greenville.
“I decided I wanted to do something in the health field, and after observing him, I got my mind set on it,” Perkins remembered.
He spent a year after graduation teaching high school biology, physics, chemistry and algebra in Rossville, Tennessee, as he studied for his dental school acceptance exam. After graduation, he completed a two-year pediatric residency at Batson Children’s Hospital.
“Even before I started dental school, I was leaning toward pediatrics,” Perkins said. “I love kids.”
While wife Jessica worked, Perkins sometimes had to take their twins, John Seton and Ashton, now 13, to class. Their oldest son is Preston, now 16.
“They’d be under my feet, or sitting in a corner playing. The dental school folks knew them well,” Perkins said.
Treating special-needs children, Perkins said, “is a big part of pediatric dentistry.”
“In my residency program, almost all of our patients were special needs,” he said. “Every pediatric dentist in the state . . . if they had someone they couldn’t handle, they sent them to UMMC.”
“Hayden was an outstanding resident and probably worked harder than anyone,” said Dr. Bill Duncan, professor emeritus and interim chair of the Department of Pediatric Dentistry and Community Oral Health. “He’s gifted in terms of communicating with children. He’s always gravitated toward children and has a big family of his own.”
Gordy, who Perkins counts among the professors who had the biggest impact on his career, said he made her proud.
“We didn’t cut him any slack, but we made it so that he could have wheelchair access with everything needed in his reach,” Gordy said. “He probably thought I was a witch who rode him. We didn’t, but he did such a good job.”
Perkins also singles out Dr. Neva Penton Eklund, former associate professor of pediatric and public health dentistry, as a mentor who helped shape his future.
“She was the one that introduced me to the joys and rewards of taking care of these ‘special babies,’ as she would often say,” Perkins said.
Perkins’ practice is divided between seeing patients in his office and performing dental surgery three mornings a week at the Oxford and Batesville hospitals. He shares office space in Oxford with his two partners, pediatric dentists Dr. Clyde Musgrave and Dr. Jason Coleman. Perkins and Musgrave together staff a clinic in Grenada.
On a typical day, Perkins sees approximately 10 children with disabilities.
“It’s such a huge spectrum,” he said of their health challenges. “We love taking care of those kids, and there’s not a lot of places they can go.”
“Dr. Perkins is the one who taught Barkley how to do wheelies,” said Kelli Melton of Charleston, whose 8-year-old son, Barkley Criswell, a paraplegic, is one of Perkins’ patients. “He even taught him how to get back in his chair if he falls out. He’s an inspiration.”
Melton, whose 11-year-old daughter, Cheyanne Criswell, also is a patient, added: “He is the most extraordinary man you could ever be around. He and Barkley kind of share the same injury.”
“Before anything gets worse, he takes care of it,” said Angela Hawkins of Water Valley, mother to patients Bradley and Caleb Ferguson, 10 and 7 respectively, and Lauren Hoskins, 12. “He gets them not to be shy or scared. The kids love to go there.”
Perkins and his staff make a priority of educating parents on proper dental health. The vast majority of his surgery patients, most not yet school-aged, have “rampant dental decay,” he said.
“We have to do a lot of crowns and extractions. It’s a huge problem in Mississippi and in states that are considered poor.”
He finds that some parents with lower education levels put their children to bed with a bottle or sippy cup.
“It wears their teeth out,” Perkins said. “Unfortunately, sometimes the damage is done.
“We stress that kids visit us at age 1. That gives us the chance to educate parents, and that child will have less likelihood of problems down the road.”
Tempering that a visit to the dentist can be scary for some kids is the fact that Perkins’ Oxford office is just plain delightful. He said he’s had to replace pint-sized chairs “tons of times” that parents have broken as they enjoyed the video games.
His patients draw pictures displayed across the office walls, as are their photographs. The tree? It’s custom-made by a California company, and frequently decorated by his staff.
“We try to make it fun,” Perkins said. “We want them to be excited to come see us. We see them from infant to teenagers, around 16 or 17. The boys are ready to go then, but the girls won’t leave. I tell them when they graduate from college or get married, they’ve got to go.
“What’s difficult is that you’re working with kids. It’s hard to reason with a 3-year-old. You learn how to talk to a child and how to calm their fears. From 8 to 5, there’s somebody crying in the office. Some come in and they’re hurting. We get them through it and try to make it as easy and pleasant as possible.”
His patients at first are intrigued by his wheelchair.
“I have kids who want to ride,” Perkins said. “They are inquisitive, and they don’t have a filter. I tell them I hurt my back a long time ago in a car wreck, and I wasn’t wearing my seat belt – and that’s why Mama makes you wear yours.”
The office’s open bay has 12 chairs. “I wish I had 18,” he said. “Here, the kids are right beside each other. They don’t care about being in their own little room. They give each other confidence.”
Sometimes, Perkins said, children will be children.
“I get bitten all the time, but I know how to get in there and get out pretty quickly.”
And then, there’s Sophie, the mild-mannered, laid-back family pet who reports to work with Perkins several days a week. Look at Perkins’ website, www.oxfordpediatricdentistry.com, and you’ll see photos of children sprawling across Sophie, shaking her paws, or giving her tight hugs.
“I had two Golden Retrievers, but the oldest died when Sophie was 2,” Perkins said. “She’d just gotten through with obedience training, and she seemed sad at home, so I brought her here. Within two days, she was trained.
“When she hears my keys jingle at the house, she grabs my duffel bag and is ready to go.”
On one of Barkley’s visits, Sophie was taking a break in Perkins’ personal office, but spied Barkley coming through.
“She came out and got in front of him and put her head in his lap. She knew,” Kelli Melton said.
Perkins fills a need – and a loving space – in his patients’ lives, those around him say.
“Hayden does have a soft spot in his heart for kids from all walks of life,” Duncan said.
Every family on his patient registry gets a card with his cell phone number on it.
“If a child has an emergency, we fit them in, no question,” Perkins said. “I’m always on call for my patients.”