PHOENIX — The kids at school called them "shark teeth."
Until recently, Juan Sanchez, a shy 11-year-old, has spent most of his life trying to hide them.
He rarely smiled because he was embarrassed by a mouth full of gnarled teeth that jutted in every direction. Two in front were so snagged that they came to sharp points.
Dentist Seraphim Moreira remembers seeing Juan for the first time a little more than a year ago. Juan's family came to Moreira's Litchfield Park office after getting his name from relatives who were his patients.
"They ... are humble, immigrant farm workers," Moreira said of the Sanchez family.
The family brought in a boy, he recalled.
"This little boy was like 3 feet tall. He barely smiled or anything, and when he opened his mouth, his teeth were, like, all over the place," said Moreira, who has been a dentist for 14 years.
The family didn't have much money, but Moreira decided he would attempt to do Juan's orthodontic work, something he normally doesn't do as a general dentist.
Because the case was so complex, he contacted Michael Hilgers, a Goodyear orthodontist to whom Moreira refers patients.
Moreira was looking for guidance, such as advice about which type of wire he should use to straighten Juan's teeth. By the end of the phone call, Hilgers offered his services for free.
"With the orthodontics, sometimes you can look at things and put braces on there and things will automatically work out, but I was telling Dr. Moreira a case like this is very challenging," Hilgers said.
It was the most complex, non-surgical case Hilgers had seen in his more than seven years as an orthodontist.
There was a lot of work to do.
Four weak teeth were pulled. The rest were aligned and straightened. Juan, who lives in Tolleson, saw Hilgers during roughly 15 appointments for more than a year.
"Not only were the teeth crooked, but the bite was off," Hilgers said. "There were also some gum and bone issues we had to deal with."
Juan's mother, Maria Erika Sanchez, a 38-year-old single mother, could quickly tell the office visits were working.
"Since he was little, he has had very bad teeth," she said in Spanish.
"In the first week, I could see the difference the treatments were having."
For Juan, the change seemed to happen too slowly. He grew tired of wearing braces.
"I would just tell him that after the dental work he was going to look very handsome," Sanchez said. "I encouraged him more than anything else."
A few months ago, the braces came off. Juan's teeth are now normal. His smile is easier. The gaps, large expanses of gums between crooked teeth, are gone.
The treatment coordinator in Hilger's office, Tanya Sterling, said the work would have cost the family $5,600.
"I'm very grateful to the dentists," said Sanchez, adding that she would not have been able to afford braces for her son.
"My son looks so handsome now. It's so expensive. I hope God gives them plenty of work so that they can keep helping people like they did with us."
On a recent visit to Hilgers, Juan smiled widely and bumped fists with the orthodontist. Juan's friends tell him he looks different without his braces.
"They will say, 'You have a great smile,' " the soft-spoken boy says.
Moreira says he admires his colleague.
"It's easy for people to do charity when they expect something in return like tax deductions on donations or business referral or return business," he said. "This guy did this out of his goodness."
Hilgers was an athletic trainer for several years before deciding he would follow in his family's footsteps and become an orthodontist. He and his wife, Kelly, a pediatric dentist, moved to metro Phoenix in 2005 from Colorado.
He tries to take on one free case each year, and his family often sponsors and attends community events that encourage health and oral hygiene. Hilgers purchased bounce houses and a 1954 Mack firetruck to grab the attention of kids at the events he sponsors.
"This is something that we wanted to do," he said of Juan's dental work. "We can't to it for everybody, but obviously he's a really important child. We knew when we looked at the pictures ... it was going to make a big difference in his life."
Studies shows that teachers pay more attention to students with straight teeth, Hilgers said. If Juan's teeth had not been fixed, it may have been harder for him to land a job later, Hilgers said.
An employer may assume that Juan had an illness or other problems because his teeth were disfigured, he added.
"It really puts him at a disadvantage, Hilgers said, "and we wanted to give every advantage possible."
Information from: The Arizona Republic, http://www.azcentral.com