Face To Face Dr. Thomas Vergo Helps Repair Both Physical And Psychological Damage

In an ideal world, Dr. Thomas J. Vergo Jr. says, his services wouldn’t be in such demand.


“With cancer, the whole key to successful treatment is early detection and early diagnosis,” he said. “When you have that, you don’t need somebody like me.”
Vergo, who has made a career of prosthodontics and maxillofacial prosthetics, said two-thirds of his work focuses on cancers in the head and neck — and the reconstruction work required by those conditions. “If you don’t have early diagnosis, patients have to be treated with more radical surgeries.”

After spending 29 years as a professor at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, where he also maintained a private practice, Vergo has joined the dental practice of Drs. Lisa Emirzian and Vincent Mariano in East Longmeadow, bringing a new dimension to their work in esthetic, restorative, prosthetic, and implant dentistry.

“The reason this became a subspecialty of dentistry is because the techniques used to make a nose or a part of a jaw or ear are similar to techniques used in molding and carving in making a denture or crown,” he said.

And those techniques are constantly advancing, improving the outlooks of the all-too-many patients who need them.

Change of Scenery

Vergo has spent most of his career in Eastern Mass., but began his studies at the School of Dental Medicine at the University of Buffalo, from which he graduated in 1971. After completing prosthodontic training from that school and the Buffalo V.A. Hospital in 1975, he completed a maxillofacial prosthetic residency program at Roswell Park Memorial Hospital in Buffalo in 1976. From there, he accepted a full-time faculty position at Tufts, in the Department of Prosthodon-tics and Operative Dentistry.

For the past eight years, Vergo served as director of the divisions of Prosthodontics-Fixed Partial Dentures, Removable Partial Dentures, Complete Dentures, and Maxillofacial Prosthetics. This past January, he retired from Tufts as a tenured professor, moving with his wife to Northwest Conn., although he maintains his position with the Post Office Square Dental Group in Boston.

From his new home south of the Massachusetts border, Vergo felt joining Emirzian and Mariano was a natural fit when that practice came calling.
In particular, he saw opportunities to treat patients struggling with the effects of cancer and its treatment, especially in a region that has seen a dramatic expansion of cancer services.

“I treat patients in cooperation with their surgeon or radiation therapist or chemotherapist,” Vergo said. “I would hope there would be a kind of team approach with the cancer centers and hospitals in the Valley area.”

Emirzian and Mariano have always dealt with radiation therapy and chemotherapy patients, Vergo was quick to note, “but with me coming aboard, we can also deal with surgical defects of the head and neck region, such as missing noses, ears, eyes and orbits, parts of faces, and upper and lower jaws, so the artificial prostheses we make will replace those missing parts.”

Some of his work is clearly dental in nature. For example, cleft palate is a common birth defect, he said, while other children are born with conditions that will keep them from growing teeth — or they are born with teeth that wear away within six months, leaving only roots. “What we can do with those kids is make dentures that go over the teeth or the gums,” Vergo said, adding that his youngest patient for such a procedure was two and a half years old.

Still, “by definition, my work goes beyond dentistry in that it deals with not just the mouth, but the whole head and neck region,” he said. “There are patients born with congenital defects of the head and neck region, and patients who, as they grow, develop those defects.”

Vergo also works with patients who have suffered traumas such as motor vehicle accidents and require reconstructive work. Whatever the condition, however, just as in esthetic dentistry, the materials being used to repair damage in the face and neck are constantly becoming stronger and less invasive.

“In dentistry, the plastics and metals we use to make crowns and dentures are kind of space-age,” he said, “and with the advent of implants we can apply in the mouth or on the face, there have been very significant advances in restoring facial parts, with the implants helping to hold the prostheses in place.”

Making a Difference

Vergo has not only kept up with those advances, but he has helped educate the dental and prosthetics community, lecturing locally, nationally, and internationally, as well as publishing about 40 articles in various reference journals.

Furthermore, his membership in the American College of Prosthodontics, the American Academy of Maxillofacial Prosthetics, the International Congress of Maxillofacial Prosthetics, the American College of Dentists, and the Greater New York Academy of Prosthodontics testifies to his standing in his field of practice.
Still, it’s on a much smaller scale that he receives his greatest job satisfaction — in helping individual patients, particularly children, adjust to life under difficult circumstances.

“It can be very emotional, both with cancer and with some of the congenital problems,” Vergo said. “Kids are born with these conditions or get them while they’re young, when they’re developing in their personality. And they can get the deepest psychological scars because of their peers. Young kids can be cruel. So intervening for these patients is crucial not only for functions such as speaking and swallowing, but psychologically as well.”

Adults who lose a part of their face or function to cancer struggle in different ways, Vergo added.

“They actually mourn for the loss of a body part, mourn for the loss of function,” he said. “But it seems that, once they’re put back together and are whole again, they can get past that and go on living.

“They were normal once, and then they had this cancer, and we just want to get them back to normalcy again, physically and psychologically. So it’s really satisfying to take people in real trouble and get them back into society.”

Vergo has helped patients make that transition for more than 30 years — and with a fresh start in East Longmeadow, he’s not stopping anytime soon.