The Russell Wing on the first floor of the UAB Hospital is a special place. Here, faculty and residents of the School of Dentistry’s General Practice Residency (GPR) and Advanced Education in General Dentistry (AEGD) programs provide dental care to medically complex patients of all ages.

“We mostly treat adults, but we see children with special needs too. And we provide dental treatment to inpatient hospital patients as well,” explained Dr. Christine Blass, current program director for both programs.

Dr. Blass officially assumed her new role as program director on January 1st of this year, shortly after Dr. James Pignataro retired from the position following six years of service. Dr. Blass will only be the fifth program director since GPR began at UAB in 1977. After graduating from the UAB GPR program herself in 2017, Dr. Blass worked in prison dentistry for Bibb County Correctional Facility before seeking a position in private practice. “It was early in 2019 that I took an adjunct faculty position with the School’s GPR program,” she explained. “I am currently the only full-time faculty member for the department, but we’ve recently added two additional part-time faculty members, which brings our total adjunct faculty members up to seven people – including Dr. Terry Chafin, our Assistant Program Director and of course, Dr. Coke.”

John Coke GPR image articleDr. John Coke‘Of course, Dr. Coke.’ Ask any GPR or AEGD resident from the last twenty years about Dr. John Coke, and they’ll likely break out into a big smile followed by a personal anecdote about how Dr. Coke made their experience more fun, and how he influenced their lives for the better. Dr. Coke accepted the position of GPR program director in 2000, after having held the same position at the University of Florida’s College of Dentistry. He stayed full-time at UAB for fourteen years, often serving not just as program director, but as a personal mentor and friend to the residents. In September of 2014, Dr. Coke retired but still continues to make the nearly three-hour drive from his home just outside of Nashville, Tenn. to Birmingham about once a month, to see patients and teach GPR and AEGD residents.

“After I graduated from Loyola University’s School of Dentistry in 1973, I completed a one-year GPR residency at Portsmouth Naval Hospital in Portsmouth, Va.,” said Dr. Coke. “I had such a great time and learned so much during my residency that I left there knowing I wanted to spend my career as a GPR program director. I just enjoy teaching much more than doing. The teaching component is my favorite part of my job!”

John’s teaching philosophy focuses on creating a fun environment in which to learn. “We focus on the patients, and don’t get carried away with the other small stuff,” he said. “The residents enjoy coming in and being challenged. I’ve been accused of being too avuncular, or ‘uncle-like’. But I think that’s a positive thing! The door to my and Dr. Blass’s office is always open – to discuss dentistry, or to discuss life.”

Similarly, Dr. Blass’s approach to her job focuses on providing residents with a meaningful year of learning and growing as dentists. “A GPR is a great option because you have somebody always around to have your back if you have a question or need guidance. It also provides residents with a strong mentor once they graduate.”

But it’s certainly not just the residents’ lives that the faculty are impacting. The Russel Wing of the UAB Hospital is where many patients with other complicated illnesses are sent to receive dental care, particularly when other dental offices are unsure of a proper treatment plan.

“We provide dental care to a lot of head and neck cancer patients,” explained Christine. “It’s a group that a lot of dentists don’t understand how to treat or are intimidated by, and so we do a lot of pro bono work with them to make sure they aren’t lacking for dental care just because of cost. You’ll really start to see deterioration in their dental work if they’re not receiving active care.”

GPR Residents Pic 600x450Yet, even though UAB’s hospital dentistry programs are providing care to medically complex patients, Dr. Blass and Dr. Coke both agree that they could use an upgrade in facility technology. “I hope to eventually provide our residents with more access to digital dentistry,” Dr. Blass said. “It’s where the profession is experiencing a lot of growth and we don’t want to lose potential applicants because we can’t compete with other schools. Every single resident candidate agrees that they want to learn two main things from residency: how to treat medically complex patients and digital dentistry. We’d love to be able to confidently offer both!”

Prior to the year 2000, the GPR and AEGD programs were actually completely separate. There were different faculties for each, and while GPR has always been located in the hospital, the AEGD program was in the dental school building. Both Dr. Blass and Dr. Coke keep in touch with many former residents, and want them to know how influential alumni can be on the success of both programs. As Dr. Blass embarks on her new role, she hopes to see even more support from alumni.

“Our facilities are outdated, and there’s always a need for equipment updates,” she mused. “But I also love to see alumni give back by teaching because the more perspective the residents can have from practitioners working out in the field, the better. The more alumni we can have serving as adjunct faculty, the better our programs will be.”

If you would like to nominate a UAB School of Dentistry alumnus to be featured in an upcoming Alumni Spotlight, please email Elizabeth Carlson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..