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Fire challenges regional orthodontist

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By Laura Hagan

The unplanned relocation occurred under the worst kind of circumstances.Two weeks after his orthodontics practice burned in Trimble County, Dr. Alfred “Al” Gernert opened a practice in Oldham County with the help of friends, family and colleagues.Gernert lost almost everything in the July 20 fire that engulfed his office building – a blaze fire officials believe a short in the electrical wiring ignited as power flickered rapidly during a storm.He salvaged his stainless steel instruments because they could be cleaned and sterilized, but lost everything else.Gernert, a Ballardsville resident, said he prayed the damage wouldn’t be too bad as he rushed to Trimble County after learning of the fire. The severely burned building sustained smoke damage throughout. A family dentistry office housed in the building also lost everything.Anything made of plastic melted, including the top of a panoramic X-ray machine.“I can’t describe it, it was just unbelievable,” Gernert said. “You can’t understand how a fire works unless you’re in there watching it. More than anything, I was just devastated.”The day after the fire, Gernert scrambled to find new office space – he had patients to see. As the only dental office in Trimble County, Gernert said had no other place to set up nearby and see patients in a hurry.Dentists in nearby Madison, Ind., invited him to use their offices, but without a license to practice in Indiana, he had to decline.In Oldham County, the former office of Dr. Jack Foote, a recently retired orthodontist and Gernert’s classmate from dentistry school, sat vacant.“Which meant if I could round up equipment, (we) could get set up,” Gernert said.Fortunately, his friends in the field offered equipment they weren’t using, and Gernert purchased equipment to fill in the gaps.“The dental community is very supportive,” he said. “Especially when something like this occurs. They will pitch in and do what they can to help.”Dr. Howard Green, another of Gernert’s former classmates, offered many donations to get his practice up and running.Green said Gernert called him at 2 a.m. the night of the fire.“He said, ‘I’m standing here with the fire department, watching my office burn,’” Green said. “From a dentist’s standpoint that’s a catastrophe. From an orthodontist’s standpoint, it’s a triple catastrophe.”Green said summer is a busy time for orthodontists.“I was able to help him out, and I feel really good about it,” he said. “Not only is he a good friend, he’s a good colleague and he deserves the best.”Gernert examined patients at Green’s office on Poplar Level Road in Louisville during the two weeks it took to get the office set up.His receptionist, Donna Mahoney, spent the two weeks calling patients from her home.Mahoney, Gernert’s receptionist for 29 years, gave patients her home phone number and took phone calls while she worked sorting records salvaged from the fire.“It was just a shock,” she said, “but I was willing to help Dr. Gernert get back in business as soon as possible.”In Gernert’s orthodontic practice, he sees most patients about every four weeks.“(So) it was critical to get set up in a hurry,” he said.Just two weeks after the fire, Gernert welcomed patients to his new office.Gernert said he’s amazed how quickly they got the office up and running, but said it’s something he had to do.Furniture in the reception area came from Gernert’s original practice on Hurstbourne Lane. Dr. Lisa Klemenz, who took over the practice, offered it to him.Foote’s former office is equipped with special plumbing the practice needed. Gernert made his own X-ray developing tank, and bought some of the things the practice would need before it opened.“I had a choice to make,” he said. “I could hang my head and be depressed, or decide that I’ve got to find a place to see my patients. That focus helped me get through.”Gernert and his staff have purchased many things since the move, but they’re slowly learning which supplies they lack.For example, Gernert makes mouth guards for student athletes, which requires boiling water. When an athlete needed one recently, Gernert said they had a microwave to heat the water, but no bowl to put it in.He hasn’t decided if he’ll return to his Trimble County practice, but said it will take at least a year before the building is redone. Patients have been supportive and have made the drive to Oldham County, Gernert said.“I’ve got to think (about) how many more years I want to be in practice,” he said. “I may finish my career here, close to home.”He appreciates the kindness of the many people who offered him support after the fire.“If we hadn’t had them, it would have been difficult,” he said. “(This is something) I’d never wish anyone to go through. When you do, though, you find out there are an awful lot of good people out there.”

E-mail us about this story at: lhagan@oldhamera.com.