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Interview with Dr. Toivo Sepp, DMD

Dr. Sepp sitting at the piano
Dr. Toivo Sepp, DMD

I was impressed with Dr. Sepp’s relaxed approach to his dental practice at Appletree Dentistry and the sense that there is plenty of time to do what needs to be done. I never felt rushed or hurried or that someone was tapping their foot, waiting for me to be done. Surely there’s a clue here to prosperity and well-being, so I asked Dr. Sepp if I could interview him. Here’s his story…


I was born in Tallinn, Estonia in 1942. My father was orphaned at age 12. His father died in the gassings in World War I. Dad had relatives there on Saaremaa (an island in Estonia), but they just wanted his labor. So he studied hard and got accepted to the university. In those days, it was very competitive to get into the university—not like it is here. Dad became an attorney and worked for the police. At that time, the police were the FBI, the local police and the intelligence agency all rolled into one.

During World War II, the Germans came through first. They didn’t cause much trouble. In 1943, the Russians started pushing back. To the Germans, if you weren’t Jewish you were okay. But the Russians started relocating people to Siberia or into the ground. One of the criminals Dad put away, told him “Rudy, the Russians are coming for you. Get your family out.” So they packed what they could carry and booked a passage on a herring trawler.

My brother and I were drugged to keep us quiet and stuffed into herring barrels. I was two years old. Dad went back to Tallinn to join the resistance, but he got drunk and his friends didn’t know what to do with him, so they brought him down to the boat and put him on board. That’s how we all came to be together.

It was a small boat and this was winter. The storms pushed us back into the islands several times. Dad owned a gun, but he decided on that journey he was never going to use it again and threw it into the Baltic Sea. A plane flew over us and a submarine surfaced near us, but they left us alone because we were just a small fishing boat.

We landed in Sweden, displaced people with nowhere to go. Dad got a visa to the U.S. and sailed to New York. A year later, he was able to prove he could support his family, so the rest of us came over. I was four years old. I remember I had a ball with me. It was winter and the boat was pitching. I lost the ball overboard, but we made it to New York.

Dad tried to get back into law and went back to school to study. Although he was fluent in four languages, English was not one of them. It’s really difficult to argue a court case in a language you aren’t fluent in, so he gave up on that idea.

We moved to Los Angeles where Dad worked for a manufacturing company making railroad wheels. He was a thinking person, not a laborer. One day, he got caught in the lathe and ruined his arm. So he went back to school and became a mechanical draftsman.

He put all three of his kids through school on just $12,000 a year. My brother, Dennis, went to the PhD level, I got my DMD and my sister got an MA in teaching. Education is the key. My parents made lots of sacrifices to put us through school. I got my sense of justice and hard work from my father.

I got into dentistry on a fluke. During the Vietnam War, the government stopped giving deferments to graduates but still gave them to professionals. So I went into dentistry. My hands are good, my spatial perception is exceptional and I’m good at visually putting things together. And although, blood doesn’t excite me, I do this work because I really enjoy it.

About a year ago, we were going to have to hire a replacement hygienist for just three months. That’s not enough time to get to know the practice and how to do things, so I decided to do the cleanings myself. I really enjoy interacting with the patients. You get to know them and you can have some good discussions. In the end, I decided to just continue on doing the cleanings.

The hour you spend on hygiene, you don’t spend in the “big chair,” so you don’t make as much money. But most patients enjoy having me do the cleanings. My skills allow me to check things differently. Just scraping doesn’t help you. If there are no hard deposits in certain places, you won’t find them in other places. A hygienist is trained to clean teeth and must fill up the hour. But because I know what to look for, I can clean only what needs to be cleaned. It’s faster and more comfortable for the patient.

Advice to new dentists

Find a place you want to be and set up practice.

  • Be patient.

  • Do as good as you can do and learn from your mistakes.

  • Make sure you like what you do.

  • Be patient.

  • Don’t be greedy.

  • Be patient.

  • No deal is so big you have to do it right now.


If success is the only thing that is important to you, you probably won’t be very happy. All this stuff can be gone in a moment. But I still have the skill. I can still fix a tooth.

My yardstick is the quality of my children—how they view the world.

Don’t be afraid of hard work. All work is honorable.

Do what you like to do. Life is too short.


We need to rewrite the definition of work. The old definition—provide a service and get paid—is over. Labor is being replaced by machines. Physical labor is not the definition of work. What if you smiled at people and got paid? Provide compensation for just being here. I’m perfectly willing to have my tax dollars go to provide a decent life for someone who provides a decent life for someone else. Maybe we will value your worth to society: do you cause good things to happen or bad things?

We are taking away the physical jobs. Now machines do this work. But what do you do with these people? In the past, if a child was just average, he would have worked at an hourly wage job. Now what does she do? What will my grandchildren do? Maybe we can turn the corner, possibly…

If we continue the way we are going, people who have specific skills will be left out in cold. The resources are being concentrated with just a few people. The rest of us have nothing. Sooner or later this will affect the upper middle class. I worry about that. I have a simple theory of human existence—we are all in one elephant parade, trunk to tail. This breaks my elephant parade.

Greatest hope for the world…

Someday I hope the world will value people as important. Even the least of us has a function. We don’t know where the next great idea will come from. Ideas spring from any place.

I hope we will understand that we are a small speck. We can’t keep going the way we are going—we can’t keep polluting the environment. Both rich and poor breathe the same air. I wish people would wake up and clamor for change. Open your eyes and read and think for yourself.

I wish the world would see itself as one unit with different colors, different shapes. Most of the conflict in the world is about wanting more.

I want the world to wake up, to change and do the right thing.

Forget religion. Forget ethnicity. We are all one group. For all the misery religion has caused us, we all pray to the same God. The polar ice caps are melting, the ocean is rising, the East Coast has snow and the West Coast will have a dry summer. It’s raining in Hawaii. If enough people get uncomfortable, we may change it.

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