One of the most common questions I often heard from patients was, “why did you choose to become a dentist?” It always made me smile because the question usually came about from different intentions. Many were simply curious and fascinated to learn how one falls into this career. They just wanted to get to know a little bit about me. Some were curious and fascinated because they always thought it would be so hard to “be in people’s mouths all day.” They admired my strength. Others, well, they were curious and fascinated because they found it unfathomable that anyone would even consider it; and they wanted to know how crazy I really was. I always had a genuine answer, but some days I jokingly replied, “I don’t know,” laughing, shaking my head, and wondering that same question myself.
But there is a reason I went into this.
The reality is there were a lot of reasons it sounded so great to me, but instead of making a list about why dentistry is so wonderful, I’ll just touch on the basic feelings I had about it. It started early. As a kid I remember being very interested when the dental assistant would clean my teeth and teach me things about them. I did have quite a few fillings when I was young, but it never seemed to faze me. I would come in, get the job done, and I was on my way. It was always a positive experience. The dentist and the staff were consistently kind, caring, and still told me I did a great job with my teeth, despite having some cavities. And like most patients out there I cooperated, allowing them to help me.
Knowing what I know now, I realize they weren’t just trying to make me feel good. I took care of my teeth, so the cavities weren’t from lack of brushing. It was the Coke. I always thought I was so cool because I was allowed to drink Coke whenever I wanted. While friends were being forced to drink milk with their dinner, I was allowed to have Coke. Yep, I know that’s what brought me back to the chair year after year. When I got to college and realized that I had to run to the store and pay for it myself, my perspective changed a bit. What a hassle this was! As I became aware that I was blowing through a 6-pack in just a few days, this cheap and lazy college kid simply quit. It didn’t dawn on me at the time, but now I can look back and see how much that changed things for not just my teeth, but also my overall health.
For me the dental experience was not only interesting, but it was always positive. I never imagined it could be any other way for people.
Then I got my braces on in 9th grade. That day felt like the worst day of my life. Many of my friends were getting their braces off, and here I was having to go through high school with them on. Just a few years earlier, my friends and I would bend paper clips and put them on our teeth, pretending we had retainers. (That was before I became a germophobe.) But now, I was too old for braces. Could that awkward and insecure 14-year-old with a bad perm get any cooler?
It was the first day I ever said the F word in front of my mom. I froze with regret, and slowly turned to look at her, unsure of what was coming next. I think she got it, though, because she let it go. As horrible as that day was for me, the day I got my braces off was equally as fantastic. It was the day before I started 11th grade, and phew, was I relieved! I could finish high school feeling a little less dorky. But I remember how great I felt when I looked at my big white teeth in the mirror. My smile looked so good, and I remember thinking how a smile could change someone’s life.
I was finally seeing the big picture, and I had the fleeting thought, “I would like to help people smile… literally.”
I didn’t think about it again until I was in college, having to decide what to do with my life. Somehow, dentistry came up again. I liked people and knew I wanted to work with them, most likely in healthcare. Being a medical doctor always sounded great, but I didn’t want to be in hospitals. I didn’t want to be around sick people. (It’s just as well– my germophobic tendencies only got worse over the years. But that’s a whole different story.) I thought it would be too heavy for me emotionally. Instead, I thought dentistry could allow me to help people and actually fix something– like putting a puzzle together. To me it looked like this: someone comes to you with a problem, you fix it, and you’ve helped them. Simple enough. And really, that is what dentistry is about… it’s just a little more complex. My argument was convincing enough that a college friend who was adamant about going to med school still thanks me for convincing her to go to dental school instead.
Ultimately I really wanted to help people smile and help make beautiful smiles. Sounds corny, but I think it is genuinely true for so many of us dental geeks out there.