Root canals are about as bad as it gets. But these excruciating procedures offer Dr. James Morrison of Moberi Dental Specialists the opportunity to play the hero.
“When a patient visits the endodontist, they don’t visit with us for any cosmetic reasons,” he says. “They’re already in pain. They want to be relieved of pain while being able to save that natural tooth.”
It’s a role he doesn’t shy away from.
Morrison grew up in Virginia Beach, Virginia, in a medically minded family. Several cousins and uncles were doctors, but he leaned toward teeth because he saw dentistry as more of an art. “When you look at the exercise of cleaning, shaping, disinfecting, and doing so within the confines of the oral cavity, there are certain elements of health care that are exhibited,” he says. “One is cosmetic. For me, as an endodontist, we’re judged by our X-ray.”
After his undergraduate studies at the University of Pittsburgh, where he also lettered in baseball and football; dental school at the University of Pennsylvania; and a residency at Boston University, Morrison moved to Houston in 2005. He thought the area had the kind of “cultural peace” that would allow him to raise his three children—ages 17, 12, and 7— with his wife, pediatric dentist Joi Shaw Morrison. Soon after he founded Moberi Dental Specialists with Dr. Dina Bramipour and Dr. Allen Simmons.
But the pandemic wasn’t exactly peaceful for Moberi Dental. Morrison found himself more challenged as a small businessman than an endodontist. With dentists’ offices becoming hot zones of potential Covid-19 transmission, the number of patients seeking treatment plummeted. As Morrison’s referrals began drying up, he and his partners decided to reduce their number of locations from three to one: the Center at Copper Grove plaza in the Copperfield area.
Although shutting down two branches meant laying off some valuable employees, Morrison says the overall volume of patients hasn’t changed that much, nor has the level of care they provide: “We concentrated all of our energy into our one northwest practice; and that practice has continued to flourish, to grow, and deliver the same quality care we’ve always delivered in the past.”
Morrison says his commitment to quality comes from lessons he learned from his mentor Dr. Raymond Fonseca, the former dean of Penn’s school of dental medicine. Dr. Fonseca taught him “it doesn’t necessarily matter what the reimbursement may be, at the time that you’re visiting with that patient, that patient’s the most important piece of that entire health care dynamic,” Morrison says.
Apart from his professional work, Morrison is deeply rooted in his community. As the entire Houston area reeled from Hurricane Harvey in 2017, he and now-former Houston Vice Mayor Pro Tem Jerry Davis founded We Are In It Together (WAIIT), a nonprofit focused on students in underserved communities. Especially in Davis’s District B, which covers a large section of northeast Houston and the area around Bush Intercontinental Airport, Morrison saw the flooded-out homes where families lost everything, including everyday necessities like food, clothes, water, and even toothbrushes.
“These kids already don’t live in River Oaks or Beverly Hills,” Morrison says. “You don’t want them to feel as though they’re living in a Third World country, so we jumped in and did what we could with what we had.”
What he had was leverage with the National Dental Association. Morrison called on the organization’s corporate partners including Colgate, Proctor & Gamble, and Johnson & Johnson to send boxes upon boxes of toothbrushes, toothpaste, and other hygiene products to Houston. Later, H-E-B got on board to donate food, and soon WAIIT was distributing about a thousand care packages to District B schools such as Kashmere Gardens Elementary and others.
More recently, WAIIT has focused on tutoring programs aimed at ensuring students at various District B schools read at grade level. “Once you’ve got a kid who can perform at grade level, you’ve got a kid who’s got a chance to succeed,” says Morrison, currently president of WAIIT’s board of directors.
Morrison credits his parents for providing him a strong moral foundation and emphasizing the importance of education. His father coached football at an inner-city high school in Virginia, and visiting practices helped him “experience life through the eyes of those ballplayers” and “grow up a little bit quicker,” he says.
Morrison continues to stay in touch with many of his dad’s players, whom he regards as “big brothers.” They’re part of an extended network of contacts—college buddies, professional colleagues, community leaders—he doesn’t hesitate to reach out to when he encounters someone he thinks might benefit from the same sort of “father figure” relationship he enjoyed with Fonseca in the early aughts.
Many of these young people are student athletes he’s met through his kids’ athletic endeavors, but not all of them. A few days before Morrison spoke with us, a patient in his chair mentioned she was a sophomore at Prairie View A&M and was interested in exploring a career in pediatric dentistry. A friend of his has such a practice just three doors away, as it happens, while his wife’s office also stands ready to help if need be.
“We’re going to allow that young lady to shadow in [that] office at least three times a month, so that she understands what it will take to be a pediatric dentist,” Morrison says. “And then, on the back end, I’ve got relationships with dental schools and will begin to follow her into summer programs so that she can build her resume and be given admission once she completes her programming.”
He estimates he’s helped dozens of young adults find a career path forward—in an array of professions outside of dentistry, he adds. But why is giving back so important to him, anyway?
“Because of everything that was given and poured into me,” Morrison says. “I understand that there’s nothing that I was able to accomplish on my own; and for me to not give what was given to me, I don’t think my life would have been well-lived.”