Bill Sasser, D.M.D., was unavailable when ADA President Linda J. Edgar, D.D.S., called to let him know that the ADA Board of Trustees had named him the recipient of the 2024 ADA Humanitarian Award.
Wouldn’t you know it — he was away, doing what many of his friends in South Carolina know him for.
“I was actually out of the country on a mission trip serving in a prison in the Dominican Republic when she first called,” Dr. Sasser said.
Because of poor phone service, he didn’t get the message until he returned to the States.
The ADA Humanitarian Award, one of the Association’s highest honors, recognizes dentist members who have distinguished themselves by outstanding, unselfish leadership predominantly in the field of dentistry, through the expenditure of extraordinary time and professional skills to improve the oral health of underserved populations.
“This prestigious award recognizes Dr. Sasser, who has selflessly made a lasting impact on the oral health care and overall well-being of his fellow human beings both stateside and abroad,” said Dr. Edgar. “Humanitarian activities are a foundation of the dental profession. Acknowledging ADA members like Dr. Sasser not only recognizes his individual contributions but encourages others to pursue similar activities and reflects positively on the profession.”
Dr. Sasser is honored for his work as executive director of Dental Community Fellowship — having led or participated in nearly 140 mission trips in 34 countries over two decades — as well as being the founder of South Carolina’s North Charleston Dental Outreach clinic, which provides dental treatment for individuals whose options for care are restricted due to financial issues and the absence of insurance.
After graduating from the Medical University of South Carolina and a residency in periodontics at the University of Alabama in 1976, Dr. Sasser began a private practice. After many years in practice while serving periodically on short-term mission trips, he left practice to enter a second career focused primarily on full-time international and stateside service.
In 2010, his former partner needed help and Dr. Sasser returned to part-time private practice. During this period, he continued to participate on multiple short-term international projects each year while leading the effort to build a new North Charleston Dental Outreach clinic, serving as its dental director.
Dr. Sasser’s mantra is, "You make a living by what you earn; you make a life by what you give.”
“The above quote is attributed to Winston Churchill and speaks directly to certain aspects of my life,” Dr. Sasser said. “I was determined to be ‘successful’ when I went into private practice, but if someone had asked, I’m not sure that I could have clearly defined what that meant. If not, then I would never know if and when I had achieved the goal. I was earning a living, but not experiencing a full life. We need both, but my life has been much more fulfilling — practicing dentistry for free — than when I was getting paid.”
Pharmacy’s loss is dentistry’s gain
Dr. Sasser was born in Birmingham, Alabama. His first job in high school was working in a neighborhood drug store and he went on to Samford University to earn a degree in pharmacy in 1966.
He served as a U.S. Navy pharmacy officer for three years during the Vietnam War. As he neared the end of his military commitment, he took time to reassess different options for his future.
“While pharmacy is a good profession, I desired more interpersonal contact than a retail store offered,” Dr. Sasser said. “Dentistry was a perfect choice since it allowed me to build on my pharmacy background and to lead to a future which allowed for the development of long-term personal relationships with patients.”
In 1973, he received his D.M.D. at the Medical University of South Carolina.
He worked in private practice for three decades, but something gnawed at him in the back of his mind.
“Dentistry is a helping profession, but for many years I’m embarrassed to admit that I was a workaholic focused on being ‘successful,’” he said. “It took a major hurricane in the late 1980s to open my eyes to the greater need in our community.”
His first international mission trip was to Mexico in the early 1990s. It too was a revelation.
“My mentor on that trip was a wonderful dentist who from the beginning has dedicated his whole career to service,” Dr. Sasser said. “He was quite an inspiration. While treating patients in a nondental office setting was foreign, I learned the basics of delivering care in a portable environment. More than being challenged, I was encouraged to seek God’s lead about what this experience meant for my future. That particular trip was the halting, humble beginning to how volunteer service became a major focus of the rest of my dental career. The best advice that I received on that trip was to not expect to see all that the future had in store, but to simply take one step in faith at a time and trust.”
Hooked, Dr. Sasser began serving more frequently overseas.
“I felt torn between the obligation to my patients at home and the needs of patients with which I was confronted during my travels,” he said. “The desire to serve more led to me actually leave private practice [in 2005]. For several years I travelled further and served longer. It was more or less a sabbatical. A few years later a former partner needed help, so I returned to practice for six more years while continuing to focus on student ministry at home and periodic short-term mission trips.”
When not on mission trips, Dr. Sasser lived in the North Charleston area. What he saw distressed him.
“At one time, the largest employer in the Charleston area was the Naval shipyard,” Dr. Sasser said. “In the 90s, the Naval base was closed during a base reorganization. This led to the loss of jobs and lots of changes in the neighborhood adjacent to the bases.”
In 1998, a Baptist organization established a small dental clinic to serve the community, including the Chicora-Cherokee residents, located on the ground floor of a townhouse.
“The space was limited, the equipment was old, but faithful volunteers addressed toothaches one evening each week,” he said. “I served as dental director for many years and while we treated lots of patients each year, I couldn’t shake the vision of someday having a more full-service charity clinic.”
For years, Dr. Sasser tried to convince churches and nonprofits of the need for a better dental clinic to serve this community. He said everyone thought it would be a good project, but when to it came right down to it, no one wanted to help.
So, Dr. Sasser took things into his own hands and began raising money for a clinic that became the heart of North Charleston Dental Outreach.
“Praise God, a new six-chair clinic opened in the fall of 2022,” Dr. Sasser said. “We now operate more than four days a week offering preventive and restorative care in addition to extractions, limited endodontics and anterior partial dentures.”
The next generation of volunteers is something Dr. Sasser has also become passionate about, primarily but not excluding those from the Medical University of South Carolina’s James B. Edwards College of Dental Medicine.
“Over 20 years ago, God made it clear that I needed to be more focused on mentoring dental students than just serving alone,” Dr. Sasser said. “Since then, most of the focus of my humanitarian service has involved teaching students and showing other dentists how to work outside a traditional office.”
Dental Community Fellowship was founded 20 years ago, and since then, student trips have been organized four to six times each year.
With everyone’s travel curtailed during the pandemic, Dr. Sasser returned overseas in the fall of 2021. He just completed his sixth mission trip of 2023.
“There are several motivating factors in my life,” Dr. Sasser said. “One is to ‘finish well’ as an individual who recognizes that God is the source of any good in my life. How I live is a response to his goodness. I also want to mentor the next generation of dentists in order to share my knowledge but to also make them aware of the needs of the poor. This will hopefully instill in them a desire to volunteer, be it in their own office by rendering discount or pro bono care, volunteer at or start a local charity clinic, or periodically serve overseas.”
Support from dental community
Dr. Sasser was lauded by dentists and colleagues who nominated him for the award.
Kari Ryan, D.M.D., in a letter to the ADA, referred to Dr. Sasser affectionately as the Sassinator.
“I have known Dr. Sasser for 17 years now, and throughout these years, have witnessed his steady and unrelenting drive to serve his God and community through use of his leadership and dental skills,” Dr. Ryan wrote. “While at the Medical University of South Carolina, I became involved with Dental Community Fellowship, where Dr. Sasser is the executive director and leader. I found a tribe of like-minded dentists who wanted to serve God by sharing their talents. Dr. Sasser inspired us to come together as a community of students, finding comfort and family in each other during stressful school years.”
In another letter, the South Carolina Dental Association praised Dr. Sasser’s for demonstrating “significant leadership and outstanding humanitarian volunteer accomplishments that bring honor to the dental profession.”
J. Mark Barry, D.D.S., former associate dean for clinical affairs at the Medical University of South Carolina’s James B. Edwards College of Dental Medicine, wrote that he had “never encountered a more committed, selfless, tireless leader who emphasizes compassion to the underserved and disadvantaged.”
L. Ellen Thrailkill, D.M.D., has been on several overseas dental mission trips and is a dentist at Great Oaks Dental in Pickford, South Carolina.
She wrote, “Students and participants are often changed by these experiences and go on to serve others. I personally was one of these students, in 2008, when I went on my first trip with Dr. Bill. I thought dentistry was a great career because of the income potential and ability for me to have control over my schedule. While these things are true about dentistry, my eyes were opened to the great opportunity I was missing to serve others through dentistry. I don't think I would continue to volunteer locally or abroad if it weren't for Dr. Bill.”
As for “Dr. Bill,” he has scheduled six international trips in 2024, with the first in January in a small town in southern Honduras, with team made up of 15 students, five dentists and a few helpers.
Also on tap for 2024: Dr. Sasser will be honored at SmileCon 2024 in New Orleans in October. The Humanitarian Award recipient receives $10,000, designated to the charity of his choice.
“I don’t like to draw attention to myself so I’m a little embarrassed by being selected,” Dr. Sasser said. “However, our [North Charleston Dental Outreach] charity clinic can use the financial award. In addition, the timing of next year’s ADA meeting couldn’t be better. My wife is originally from New Orleans. She’s already talking about trying to arrange for some friends and family to come share the joy of the occasion.”
He turned modest.
“I’m honored to have been selected for this award, but [I’m not] a saint. I’m a flawed individual who doesn’t mind working hard, and who feels that contributing to the good of others is somewhat selfishly allowing me to be productive into my old age. I’ve been richly blessed by God and hopefully my life gives testimony to that fact.”