Taking a big bite out of life

"Do something different each day," says Assoc. Prof. Lance Rucker

by Hilary Thomson
Staff writer

Picture To say that Lance Rucker is a Renaissance man is to flirt danger ously with understatement.

An associate professor of Dentistry, Rucker is also an inventor of ergonomic equipment, a championship ballroom dancer, actor, novelist, playwright, sailor, violinist and martial arts student.

He has been a skydiver, professional horse trainer and pistol and rifle marksman. He also speaks three languages other than English.

"I think it's critically important to do something different each day and to start something at which you are a beginner every couple of months," says Rucker. "It's important to be a beginner if you wish to thrive in living and particularly if you wish to be a good mentor and teacher."

Originally from Kentucky, Rucker has been a faculty member since 1983.

After obtaining an undergraduate Arts degree, Rucker pursued dentistry because it satisfied many of his needs for flexibility, versatility, independence and a fusion of science and art.

His specialties include performance simulation, clinical ergonomics and surgical magnification.

"Performing microsurgery in a small cavity -- often working in reverse and using mirrors -- can lead to imbalanced posture and repetitive strain injuries," says Rucker, who is director of clinical simulation in the faculty.

Repetitive strain injury, often affecting the back and neck, has been recognized as a problem for dentists, hygienists and assistants since the early 1960s. With changing work patterns such as entire workdays spent in repetitive fine motor tasks such as keyboarding, the condition is becoming increasingly common and is receiving international attention.

It's estimated that about 60 per cent of North American dentists suffer with low back pain each year. On average every clinician misses one to two days of work annually for muscle or skeletal problems related to work posture, says Rucker.

In addition to teaching students healthy ergonomic practices in clinical simulations, Rucker acts as a consultant to professionals who have suffered strains and need advice about minimizing further risk of injury. He also advises insurance companies in evaluating claims for work-related disability arising from dental practice.

His interest in ergonomically correct work practices and equipment led him to design the "ErgoLogic." It's an ergonomic computer keyboard that is split into two sections that form an inverted V-shape which the user can adjust to the most comfortable angle.

Rucker patented and co-developed the keyboard with North America's largest keyboard manufacturer. About 15,000 of the boards have been sold worldwide since 1994.

Surgical telescopes present another ergonomic challenge for Rucker, who is head of the faculty's interdisciplinary Surgical Telescope Evaluation Project.

Ultrafine motor tasks performed by dentists require the use of surgical telescopes that look like mini-binoculars attached to a pair of eyeglasses.

The angle of the telescope, or declination, in relation to the dentist's eyes and the work being done is critical. If the angle is incorrect, the wearer often compensates by holding the head and neck in an awkward position or straining the eyes.

Rucker developed a declination gauge that allows the wearer to get the best postural and optical balance. The gauge was produced by a surgical telescope manufacturer and 400 dentists in B.C., most faculty members and all incoming UBC dental students now work with customized declination surgical telescopes.

"I revel in the support I have received from UBC," says Rucker. "No matter what strange places my creativity and scholarly activities have led me, the university has always backed me up."

Perhaps the most innovative project yet is the Clinical and Surgical Computer Interface. Rucker is one of the UBC co-founders.

The project aims to develop a head-mounted computer device that allows for hands-free access to computerized records and images and control of equipment and hardware.

Called Surgical Telescope Augmented Reality (STAR), the device uses voice-activated input and output that allows the practitioner to work without the necessary but clinically disrupting and distracting activities of note-taking, record-keeping and getting and viewing X-rays.

"STAR will boost ergonomic capability greatly, it makes treatment safe for both dentists and patients and it also has an enormous commercial potential," says Rucker. "All microsurgeons would benefit from this device -- everyone from cardiovascular and neurosurgeons to ophthalmologists."

Rucker and the STAR team have worked with the Faculty Development Office and the University-Industry Liaison Office to expedite the product's development via a private company.

"Dentistry has undergone incredible changes since I began in the profession," says Rucker. "Ironically, in spite of revolutionary developments in biomaterials and instrumentation, most dentists continue to work for their equipment rather than making their equipment work for them."

Rucker credits UBC's relatively small and flexible faculty as being a key factor in UBC dominating change in North American dental schools.

In addition to introductory ergonomics and clinical simulation Rucker teaches performance logic, peak performance training, restorative dentistry and clinical hypnosis.

"Hypnosis is about finding the body/mind balance. We use it to help patients relax or to reduce or stop specific responses such as gagging or hypersalivation," says Rucker. "It has been accepted in clinical dental practice in North America since the mid-1950s and has been a standard part of UBC dental curriculum since the early 1980s."

Named UBC Dental Educator of the Year in 1992, Rucker is also a lifetime member of the Research Education and Action for Community Health (REACH) Centre Association in recognition of his role redesigning the REACH Dental Clinic.

REACH is the base for a program where supervised UBC dental students provide free dental care at the Downtown Eastside clinic.

These professional accomplishments are balanced with Rucker's varied personal interests and achievements.

A creative writer since childhood, Rucker says writing is an obsession for him. He has written four novels, three screenplays, several hundred poems and two collections of short prose pieces.

He is currently co-authoring a book with his wife who is a sexual and marital therapist. Called Love in the Fourth Dimension and Beyond, the book describes eleven dimensions of loving, sexuality and intimacy.

But writing is not Rucker's only form of self-expression. He and his wife are ballroom dancers. In addition, he has acted since his days as a university student. His recent entry into the local television film industry has landed him roles ranging from FBI agent in the top-rated X-Files to criminal mastermind.

Another outlet for Rucker, both physical and philosophical, is the martial art of Aikido which he has studied for 12 years.

"It's a quiet and an intensely powerful art. I see it as a dynamic expression of harmony and balance in the universe," he says. "It's also a lot of fun."

So what's the secret to becoming a 20th-century Renaissance man?

"Each day should contain five elements: read something, write something, get in touch with thoughts and feelings, do something physical and do something creative."

This openness to learning and discovery is reinforced by an Aikido tradition, says Rucker.

"The instructor begins each practice by saying `onegaishimasu' which means `please help me or please teach me.' I like to conduct my university teaching and my life in the same spirit."