Dr. Deborah Lesem_lowres

Dr. Deborah Lesem knows her patients on a first-name basis.

With slate-blue walls, a comfortable couch, and au courant accessories, the waiting room at Dr. Deborah Lesem's (100 Robert E. Blvd., 504-286-3880; www.drlesem.com) dental practice conveys tranquility. The converted Lakeview cottage feels warm and comforting, rather than chilly and impersonal.

  "We tried to [design the office] that way," Lesem says. "It is more relaxing. ... There aren't 10 people in bus-stop chairs."

  Many people dread dental appointments. Lesem combats that with a patient-driven approach. Every morning, the staff meets to go over each patient's file and discuss possible issues and treatment options. By the time a patient arrives, everyone who interacts with her knows what to expect.

  Unlike most dentists, Lesem does her own teeth cleanings. This also gives her a more intimate, first-name knowledge of her patients.

  "I know their teeth very well, too," she says. "It's not a big crowd. You're not just a number. ... I have my time with you, and that's my time with you."

  Dentistry has been a part of Lesem's life since her teenage years. In high school, she got a position in a dentist's office after just one phone call inquiring about a job. She worked at that Baton Rouge office until the end of college, when she moved on to LSU's dental school in New Orleans. After a brief partnership with another dentist, she built two practices from scratch. Her present staff includes an old friend from dental school and occasional appearances by her mother, a retired dental assistant.

  Even with support, running a solo practice has challenges. When Hurricane Katrina destroyed most of her electronic records, she spent weeks working the phones, calling patients using bare-minimum contact information from salvaged paper charts.

  "We came in here and got garbage bags full of charts," she says. "We sprayed Lysol and lay them out in my backyard. Every inch of it was covered in charts in the sun." Lesem's personal outreach helped retain many clients who have been with her ever since.

  Her one-on-one approach helps her listen to what the patient really wants, as well as what they need. She says there's a difference between what's practical and what's possible, and she wants anyone who comes into her office to be aware of both.

  "I really try not to assess what's technically wrong, but what's best for each person," she says. This could mean suggesting dentures or extensive tooth repair to younger individuals who might not be prepared to give up their teeth, or accommodating repeat consults for patients who are on the fence about a procedure.

  "I like helping people fix problems, even if it's not the most pleasant thing for them," she says. "It's [especially] gratifying to do the cosmetic stuff, because people leave very happy."