Pitt Magazine

Inspired by their son, the Weitzels advocate for better care for disabled people

The Weitzels in a dental examination room
Kent and Suzanne Weitzel have glowingly referred to Pitt’s Center for Patients with Special Needs as a model for other schools to emulate during their advocacy efforts. Photo by Tom Altany/Pitt Photography

Five adults huddle around a dental chair trying to comfort Joshua Weitzel. The preteen has come to the office for a routine dental procedure, but this is no usual visit. Joshua was born with a profound congenital disability to his brain. He doesn’t understand what’s happening and is frightened.

The dentist has tried applying a sedative, but it’s apparent it would take unsafe levels to be effective. So, wrapped tightly in blankets to provide some comfort, Joshua has two dental assistants and his parents trying to hold him still long enough for the dentist to proceed.

The trepidation felt by Joshua’s dad, Kent Weitzel, is magnified because he is a dentist, too. He not only empathizes with his son, but he also understands how the visit’s circumstances have exponentially increased the procedure’s difficulty level.

When Joshua was younger, his dad could manage his son’s dental care. But as Joshua grew bigger, Kent says he didn’t feel properly prepared — emotionally or professionally — to treat him, which is why he finds himself among those grasping his son during this visit. As he does so, he prays. And as he prays, he has an inspiration:

“That moment, helping the other doctor treat my son, caused me to develop what I call a ‘No-Fear Clause.’”

Moving forward, he vowed to have “no fear” in treating patients like his son, and that he’d work to diminish the fear in those patients, too. Furthermore, he pledged to encourage and support others in his profession to treat those with disabilities.

“That was the beginning of my quest,” he recalls, decades later, “to help all special needs patients—not just children, but adults as well, including those with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.”

Weitzel (ENGR ’69 ’71G, DEN ’81) would be joined by his wife, Suzanne (SHRS ’70) in these pursuits. The couple met at Pitt while earning their degrees — Kent from the Swanson School of Engineering; Suzanne from the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. After working as an electrical engineer for a few years, Kent realized he wanted a career that would allow him to help people more directly. He chose dentistry and enrolled at Pitt again.

Once Kent graduated from Pitt’s School of Dental Medicine, the Weitzels moved to Florida for Kent to attend an internship program. In 1982, just days before completing his internship and starting his career, Kent and Suzanne welcomed Joshua into the world. The Weitzels’ lives would never be the same.

His parents say that Joshua, who needed around-the-clock care, loved life. He was deeply cherished by his family and caregivers, who were all heartbroken in 2006 when he died from complications of his congenital disability. His memory lives on, however, through his parents’ advocacy efforts.

“Josh changed us completely,” says Suzanne. “We would have never walked this path without him.”

True to his No-Fear Clause, Kent integrated patients with disabilities into his practice. The couple also constantly presses for a more robust special needs curriculum in their home state’s dental schools, which included testifying before the Florida Board of Dentistry about the importance of such training.

In 2008, coincidentally and unbeknownst to the Weitzels, Pitt’s School of Dental Medicine created the Center for Patients with Special Needs (CPSN) to enhance the school’s existing services available to people with disabilities. The center treats these patients while also teaching students, residents and local clinicians how to work with those with medical complexity or physical, developmental, neurological and behavioral challenges.

The Weitzels, in their Florida Board of Dentistry testimony, glowingly referred to Pitt’s program as a model for other schools to emulate.

And — because CPSN’s training and services are not offered at most other universities — the Weitzels have included the Pitt program in their estate plan. Their gift creates the Joshua Benjamin Weitzel Fund for Special Needs Dentistry at CPSN. The endowed gift will support the area of greatest need within the center, as determined by its director in consultation with the School of Dental Medicine dean.

“Through our advocacy, we realized how hard it is to get care for persons with special needs,” says Suzanne. “So, we wanted to do something in Josh’s memory that will hopefully help others forever.”

They also wish to redirect any praise for their generosity.

“The real angels are those who do this even though they do not have a family member to open their eyes,” says Suzanne, Kent nodding in agreement. “These are people who are out there and just do it out of love. We had to be knocked down and humbled to wake up. The others are the real heroes.”