Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel
Santa, aka Dr. Peter Lax, high-fives Rhys Jones as the 3-year-old’s mother, Molly Jones, beams during the annual Christmas tree fundraiser for L’Arche, a nonprofit that nurtures relationships between people with and without disabilities. For decades, Lax has provided children with disabilities dental work and love. 
 

Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel

Santa, aka Dr. Peter Lax, high-fives Rhys Jones as the 3-year-old’s mother, Molly Jones, beams during the annual Christmas tree fundraiser for L’Arche, a nonprofit that nurtures relationships between people with and without disabilities. For decades, Lax has provided children with disabilities dental work and love. 

 

She entered his office fraught with anxiety. Most children don’t enjoy going to the dentist, but for 8-year-old Catherine, it was terrifying. Born with a rare chromosome abnormality, her severe developmental disability meant the world often was confusing and scary.

Dr. Peter Lax couldn’t help her understand why her mouth needed to be poked and prodded, but he knew how to work efficiently, treat her gently and show her love.

“While her mother would sing to calm her, he had her head gently in his arms; he’d talk with us, make jokes, tell stories,” recalled Catherine’s father, Paul Lipscomb. “And within five minutes, he’d be done.”

Catherine is one of the countless patients Lax, a member of St. Ignatius Parish in Portland, has cared for over the years as a pediatric dentist for children with disabilities. 

“He is an example of how we can all live out holiness in our everyday life and work,” said Dorothy Coughlin, who served as director of the Archdiocese of Portland’s Office for People with Disabilities for 36 years. “Peter doesn’t make a big deal of his service to others, but his faith impacts everything he does; he’s the modern kind of holy.”

Giving more than sparkling smiles

Lax — whose Irish roots are expressed through a dry humor and love of storytelling — spent two years as a dentist in the Navy before earning an advanced degree in pediatric dentistry from Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. 

Throughout his long career, Lax served as dental director of OHSU’s Child Development and Rehabilitation Center at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, retiring in 2009. He was a pediatric dentist for Multnomah County until early 2015 and has worked at the Providence Child Center, first as a consultant and now a contract worker. The quasi-retired Lax, a father of four, spent the bulk of his years tending to children with a range of disabilities, many severe.

Reflecting on his career, Lax said that when a child has a disability, there’s “a huge family component” in dental care.

Far beyond identifying cavities, gingivitis or impacted molars, Lax was attuned to families’ needs; he connected with patients, creatively solved problems, educated and supported parents while discerning the dynamics among family members to aid them most meaningfully. 

When Catherine, whom Lax cared for until she was in her early 20s, was feeling confined and frantic in the dental chair, Lax suggested they remove her shoes and socks, recalled her mother Lynne Cartwright. “He was wonderfully creative like that.”

“Peter thought outside the box,” added Laurie Jerome, a member of St. Matthew Parish in Hillsboro whose son Logan was born with Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, a condition characterized by neurological and behavioral abnormalities. 

His syndrome leads to self-abuse, including biting, and some with Lesch-Nyhan have their teeth removed to prevent injury. Lax came up with an alternative: a mouth guard to keep Logan safe. 

Cartwright knows children such as her daughter and Logan are not always valued in a culture uncomfortable with lives deemed “inconvenient.” A friend once asked Cartwright, “Haven’t you ever heard of amniocenteses?”  

In contrast, Lax “believes each child is a gift and deserves the best, and he is going to attempt to give it to them,” she said.  

Coughlin — who said Lax often referred Catholic patients and their families to the Office for People with Disabilities — believes the longtime dentist’s respect for all people springs from faith “so integral to his life that he could not help himself but minister to families, pray for them and give them hope.”

“But he’s not someone who uses a lot of God talk,” she said. “He’s someone who lives in such a way that makes people feel respected and loved.”  

Lax likely would deflect such compliments. At the start of a recent interview, he repeatedly suggested people he believed were better suited for a Catholic Sentinel profile. 

A dental angel for the most vulnerable

In the early 1990s, Lax became involved with the newly formed L’Arche Portland, part of an international federation of communities for people with and without disabilities who live together and learn from one another. He has served as a board member twice and remains connected — even suiting up as Santa for the nonprofit’s annual Christmas tree fundraiser. 

Lax said in L’Arche he found a perspective that paralleled and enriched his evolving view of people with disabilities. “It opened my eyes to the expansion of love that children with disabilities can bring to their parents or caregivers,” he said. 

The struggling, the tenderness and foremost the love of parents continues to move him.

He recalled one family who had five or six children, all on the cerebral palsy spectrum. As one child screamed relentlessly, the mother said gently, “I love you, I love you,” over and over again. Those are “heart-wrenching moments I’ve been privileged to see in my work,” he said.  

Lax said the hardest part of his career is accepting that his contribution to a child “is only temporary, that these children are going to have so much more to deal with in life” beyond the dentist chair. “For a hemophiliac, I can stop the bleeding, but I can’t take the hemophilia away.” 

Yet Lax’s impact on lives and local dental care is far from temporary. In 2009, the Grottoes of North America Humanitarian Foundation, a nonprofit providing dental care to children with special needs, gave a $70,000 grant in Lax’s name to fund the dental clinic at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. 

Though he now has a lighter load, Lax continues to work at the Providence Child Center and each year spends a week providing pediatric dental care in a Guatemalan village.

Laurie Jerome misses Lax’s gentle, professional care of her son but is ever grateful for his work. “He’s my dental angel,” she said. 

“When you go to the dentist you feel very vulnerable, and the people he served were some of the most vulnerable,” said Coughlin, adding: “You know how at the end of Mass the priest says, ‘Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord’? Peter — he does exactly that.”