On a recent workday, a stranger walked into Dr. Carmen Dana's dental office and handed the receptionist an envelope.
For Ellie, he said. He walked out.
Inside the envelope: A check for $500.
Then Dr. Dana's phone rang. It was an oral surgeon she knows, one who had read my Oct. 22 column about Ellie Kolesik, a 15-year-old Bellevue West sophomore suffering from a rare dental disease. Ellie needs nearly $50,000 in dental work to replace her broken, brown and diseased teeth with shiny white implants. Insurance won't foot the bill.
We would like to help, the oral surgeon told Dr. Dana. Our office would like to do Ellie's surgery. We would like to do it ... for free.
"I never in a million years thought this sort of thing would happen," Dana told me last week. "All I can say is that Ellie is appreciating every last little thing. She told me 'I had no idea that people were so nice.'"
People are nice. That is what Suzanne Kolesik, Ellie's mother, believes after a week of hearing from friends and friends of friends and complete strangers. Some have offered money. Some have offered to set up fundraisers to offset the cost of Ellie's teeth extraction, which occurred last week, and the costlier implant surgery slated to happen this winter.
Some have said they had no idea — Ellie never spoke much about the fact that she has amelogenesis imperfecta, a rare condition in which enamel doesn't properly protect the teeth.
For Ellie, this meant twice-a-month trips to the dentist's office. It meant infections that raged in her teeth and gums. It meant that even when Dr. Dana put the strongest crowns she had on Ellie's teeth, cavities still formed underneath those crowns and grew nonstop until the teeth began to rot and the crowns fell off.
Dr. Dana has practiced dentistry for 18 years. She sees 60 patients, all children, every day.
“I have never seen a case like her case,” Dana says. “In 18 years, it's by far the worst.”
When the Kolesik family's friends and acquaintances did learn this by reading the original column, many did something that warms Suzanne's heart. They called simply to check in.
How are you guys doing? How is Ellie doing?
“She's doing great,” Suzanne says of the days that have passed since Ellie got 28 teeth pulled and fitted for a set of temporary dentures, which she will wear until she gets her implants in February or March.
Since her surgery, Ellie has started to talk more about what it was like to have a mouth filled with teeth that didn't work.
“I had no idea how much pain she was in,” Suzanne says. “She had no idea how much pain she was in! She thought the pain was normal. She thought everybody lived like that.”
People are nice. That is what Dana believes after hearing from oral surgeons and dentists who have offered to work on Ellie for free.
The current plan: Bruce Kuhn and Harold Tu, the veteran surgeons who together run Omaha's Facial Surgery Institute, will put in the implants for free.
The implants themselves, which cost nearly $20,000, will also be free. A major manufacturer will donate them.
And the Thomsen Dental Group, run by Brett Thomsen and his father, Allen, will do the follow-up dental work. They will do this for free, too.
The total cost of the extraction, the implants and the related surgeries once had a price tag of $47,000, give or take. The Kolesiks' insurance company has thus far denied covering the procedure, calling it cosmetic and labeling it a medical issue not covered by dental insurance.
Now? “The only cost left is lab work,” Dana says. “It's a miracle.”
People are nice. That is what I believe after receiving more than 50 emails and dozens of phone calls from Nebraskans wanting to donate to help get Ellie Kolesik's teeth fixed. You still can: Dr. Dana is setting up a fund to cover Ellie's dental costs, which will continue throughout her life. And St. Mary Church in Bellevue is holding a fundraiser later this month. I have included information about how to donate to both in the box that accompanies this column.
People are nice. That is what Ellie Kolesik is starting to believe.
Both her mother and her lifelong dentist cannot believe how much she has changed since Oct. 22, the day she rid herself of those broken, brown and diseased teeth.
Ellie has always been quiet, sometimes painfully shy, Dana says. And then she showed up at Dr. Dana's office three days after her teeth were pulled, to help deliver a cake that Suzanne Kolesik had baked in appreciation of Dr. Dana. That day, Ellie talked. Ellie joked. Ellie stayed for an hour.
“And all that changed is she got rid of those teeth,” Dana says.
When Ellie was a little girl, back before her teeth started to turn brown, she smiled all the time. It was the most beautiful smile, her mother says, a smile that lit up the house. But as she grew older, as the cavities and the infections mounted, Ellie stopped smiling. She kept her lips pursed, so people couldn't see her condition. So they couldn't view her pain.
But the most amazing thing has happened since Oct. 22, Suzanne says. She sees it creeping from the corners of Ellie's mouth when her Bellevue West buddies joke with her. She sees Ellie's eyes crinkle and her lips curve when they are at a relative's house and someone tells a joke.
“It's coming back,” says a grateful mother. “Ellie's smile is coming back.”