Love is Blind

It was July 17, 2001: the day we officially met for the first time.  It was our first real date and the day my budding romance with dentistry began.  Everything was new and exciting.  There was no time to notice any red flags because I was too taken by the potential of how amazing my new life would be.  Our 10-year relationship was off to a great start, and I looked forward to the long life we would share together.

During the initial phase of our courtship, dentistry showered me with a lot of wonderful gifts and unexpected attention.  Life felt new, and I felt recharged.  The good times were great, and the bad times were likely to pass.  I was sure of it.

Having been a full-time student my whole life, at 27 everything changed.  I celebrated every moment, knowing I no longer had to attend a class.  I appreciated the luxury of leaving my work at the office and having the opportunity to focus my attention on anything else; or not having to devote all of my “me time” to studying for a test, writing a paper, or reading a textbook.  I suddenly felt free.  And I finally got to feel what it was like to get a paycheck, simply for putting in the same hours of work I did while in school.

Who would have ever thought that this very committed relationship would leave me feeling so independent and free?

It was scary too though.  I went from being a big cheese senior in dental school to someone who, once again, didn’t know anything.  I had to now learn to work with other people, and acquire the minor skills they neglected to teach us in dental school: how to lead an office; how to work with an assistant; how to work with office managers and receptionists; how to get the team to rally around you.  Oh, and how to manage patient relationships and treating more than 2 patients in an entire day.

Life was so exciting, though, that I was too distracted to worry.  New city, new job, new friends, new paycheck.  It was fun to meet new people and watch them react, shocked to discover I was a dentist.  The ultimate was the dirty old man at a friend’s wedding.  I was talking to this much older “gentleman,” and he asked me what I did for a living.  When I responded, “I’m a dentist,” he stopped in his tracks.  “Wait!  What? Oh, Aw, Um, No way!  Honey, honey, come here,” he called over his wife.  Before I could respond, his wife came rushing over.  “Honey, guess what this Laura, here, does for a living?”  He couldn’t leave it at that.  He felt the need to now insert foot into mouth.  “Okay, I’m gonna give you 3 choices.  She is… um, a stripper?  Uh, or… uh, a teacher?  Or a dentist?”  I didn’t know whether I should have felt flattered that I didn’t fall into the dentist stereotype or insulted that the first thing that came to his mind in order to fool his wife was that I was a stripper.  Which reminds me… here’s a good one all of you lady dentists will relate to:

Stranger: What do you do?

Me: I’m a dentist.

Stranger: Oh, so you clean teeth?  You’re a hygienist?

Me: No, I’m a dentist.  You know, root canals, fillings, pulling teeth.

Stranger: Ohhhh, wowwww!  I’m really sorry.  I didn’t mean to… wow!

Hygienists, this is not an insult to your profession.  It is a great one indeed.  It’s more a commentary made by this not-extreme-feminist woman who finds it funny that many people do not expect that a woman can possibly be a dentist.

While the reactions from people were never dull, people were always very respectful to me (except for implying that I was more likely to be a stripper.)  It was generally always positive.  In fact, I miss saying that I’m a dentist when people ask me what I do.  I don’t miss the inevitable questions that follow: “oh, hey, my dentist wants to put caps on my eye teeth.  What do you think?  Do I need them?”  Or “I went to a place where I got x-rays and an exam and a cleaning and tooth whitening– all for only $29.99!  Didn’t I get a great deal?  They said I need something called deep cleanings and 14 porcelain fillings.  Are they scamming me?  What do you think I should do?”  Regardless of the response, everyone knows what you do when you say you’re a dentist.  It’s an easy one-word answer.  There’s no explanation.  As I settle into my new identity, it’s hard for me to tell people what I do now without first explaining that I’m a “retired dentist” going through a career change.  Right now, it’s still a part of who I am.  I guess some old habits die hard.

So anyway, here I was, in this blossoming partnership, getting to know dentistry with a fairly open mind, hoping we would fall for each other.  As with many relationships, we had a lot going for us but also a lot of challenges to overcome.  I didn’t want to see those obstacles.  That’s the value of getting to know someone before taking the plunge.  Over time, certain truths come out.  Once you’re so tied together, it’s harder to break up.  For me, obviously there was no other way to find out if dentistry was the one for me.  I had to take the plunge, but I truly don’t think that at any point in our relationship it ever would have been easy to break it off.

I guess there will always be a place in my heart for dentistry, and I hope we can remain friends.  I smile everyday as I ask myself do I miss it?

And that smile lingers as I answer… not a chance!

Image: arztsamui / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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24 thoughts on “Love is Blind

  1. Hi,
    Life is always a challenge, but every now and then we decide to take a different road than the one we were on, and a different world opens up for us, the old saying sometimes is true:
    “A change is as good as a holiday”. 😀

    I had to shake my head about the “stripper” comment from the “gentleman” that was a bit weird I thought, I’m certainly glad I’m not married to that one. 🙂

    1. Hi Mags! It’s true. I still feel like I’m on holiday just because of the change.
      The guy’s wife was a little embarrassed, but he’s probably always the drunk at the party embarrassing his wife!

  2. Funny story…when I was in college, I was in the ‘seven year college/dental’ program. My floor-mates and I were watching a soap opera one day after class, and one of the characters was a ‘singing stripper’ to pay her way through dental school! I guess even in TV land, people think dental students need to ‘strip’ to get through it…The reality is they probably need to drink their way through!

  3. I felt like I was reading my own journal! It is so comforting to know that I am not alone. I just left private practice after 10 years and am teaching full time. I love it! When I was out and people would ask “what do you do” I finally got to where I would lie because I didn’t want to explain it AGAIN. no…a D E N T I S T. yes, a REAL dentist. blah blah blah.

    A friend from dental school sent me your link and I’ve been enjoying reading your stuff for the last month. Thanks for speaking out!

    1. Thanks, Amity! I’m so pleased to hear that there are others out there in the same boat! That’s so funny that you would lie about being a dentist. I started to hate identifying with being a dentist so much that I often wanted to lie about it too. It’s funny that I like to say I’m a dentist now.

      So that makes me think of another thing. I assume you teach in the dental school??? One thing that I hate is when dentists and dental students make a general statement that anyone who teaches couldn’t make it as a dentist in private practice!!!! While it might be true (and painfully obvious) for a few of them, it’s not that case for many. I realized that myself after I considered teaching as an option– even though I was capable of being a successful private practice doc I still wanted out. We should really think twice before we make those kind of judgements.

      Congrats to you on making your switch! Thanks for following, and feel free to continue to share your story on here. I’d love to hear more!

      1. I am a dentist who is feeling the exact same dread of private practice and have recently started to consider teaching at a dental school. Just out of curiosity, what makes you like it so much more than practicing? How did you get into teaching – did you have to take extra classes etc?

        1. Hi Nicole-
          I can see how it sounds like I may have gone into teaching by my comment, but I only ever thought about it! I never did it. I actually stayed in private practice until “the end.” I actually think I would enjoy teaching, but our dental school is pretty far from my house, and I haven’t ever made the effort for that reason. I don’t really know what is involved, but I think it’s worth a call over to your local school. I think there are probably pros and cons to that job also. 😉
          (Your user name had your full email in it, so I edited it out for you, so you could remain a little more anonymous… FYI.)
          Good luck! I’d love to hear what you decide to do. I bet at the very least, you could get a gig volunteering part-time at first.

  4. Great story, Laura! That old guy just couldn’t believe anyone pretty could be a dentist or have a brain in her head- lame! Glad you’ve embarked on a new adventure, it is inspiring 🙂

  5. Ah, yes, the sidewalk consult. “Does this crown look like it was done right?” Um, yeah, can’t tell from 4 feet away.

    And the female nurse practitioner at my OB/GYN’s office insists on putting my career as “dental hygienist” in my electronic record, despite the fact that I update that medical/social history every year. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a hygienist, but that’s not what I do. And my own grandma thought women couldn’t extract teeth, because we’re not strong enough.

    1. Sandy- and they are always putting their fingers in their mouth to show you!

      Too funny about the nurse practitioner. I used to have a dental assistant that would talk about her time in “dental school.” I guess some people just lump it all together.

  6. I shared your blog with my boss ( who falls under that too pretty to be smart or strong enough to be a Dentist category) and she laughs ( and I’m sure agrees!!) I can’t tell you how many times I’ve corrected patients that want to call her by her first name instead of DOCTOR.. she worked hard for that title and its disrespectful of them to call her anything but because she is a young woman!! Makes me want to roil my eyes.. lol

    1. It’s funny. When I first started practicing I thought it would be great if people called me by my first name. I quickly learned that being a young lady, I needed to have people call me Dr just to establish that sense of knowledge, education, or whatever you call it. I think only older men can get away with that! Thanks for sharing, Tracey!

  7. It is definitely hard to make than first impression as a young female dentist. Usually, I have to spend 10 minutes explaining that yes, I really am a dentist and then answering how I decided to go into this profession, like it is so unusual and strange. My male counterparts rarely get asked why they decided to go into dentistry.

    1. So true, Dr H. I have a friend who mentioned to me on facebook that he gets asked why he doesn’t have an accent– he’s Indian. It’s so crazy the things some people think and will say! I would be interested to hear if any men get asked why they decided to go into dentistry???

  8. Huh, I guess it hadn’t occurred to me that dentistry could be seen as such a boys club kind of profession. That would be obnoxious.

    And you’ve given me something to be grateful for – most people just say “oh ok” after I say I’m a software engineer. And if they ask for computer help, I can rely on “classic engineering lack of social cues” to not get it. Suckers.

    1. Yeah, I guess it is a bit of a boys club. I guess I sort of got used to it over the years. I bet people don’t ask about your job because it probably confuses them, and they’re intimidated to ask. Can be a good thing 😉

  9. I tell people Im a Dental Hygienist and they say oh your an assistant… lol I say no..I clean the teeth and make the dentist money… lol (tongue in cheek) I through that in just for giggles and they look at me funny lol lol .. they say oh yeah your the one who cleans the teeth and the DR comes in and makes sure you cleaned them right…I say no they are not checking my work they are checking your work… to see if you have been taking care of your teeth and if you have cavities etc…. I just find it funny people know nothing about dentistry…I personally think dentistry in general has too much leaway and not enough monitoring…I think its sad that as a social worker now I do so much more for this world and helping people and I get paid so much less and yet its a way more important job than hygiene in the big sheme of things.. I wish has a hygienist I could of had my own office and focus on education with the patients etc… perhaps next door to a dentist we could refer back and forth.. but the good ole boys wont release that do us..espeically here in texas.. its so backward… I appalud you doing what you love you wont regret it….

    1. Haha, Donna! I guess it happens on all scales. I think your response to them is very funny– we might as well have fun with patients and the perceptions they have. And then, how crazy is it that they think the dds is checking your work! How insulting! Again– I love your response. Brilliant– it’s is all about THEIR work. If only we could get patients to understand this better. The same stuff is going on here in Colorado with hygienists being able to have their own practices. The boys want to keep the control (and perhaps the $$$????) I have to say I haven’t invested much energy on forming an opinion on that debate, but I do think the scenario of having a dentist referral system could be a good solution.

      Anyway, I bet you feel it’s worth it everyday to help people the way you do even if it is a much smaller paycheck. I decided after my first dental job that no amount of money could convince me to continue living the way I was. It is unfortunate though– same way with teachers. Thanks for the “applause!” It’s much appreciated, and yes, life is much better now.

  10. “And that smile lingers as I answer… not a chance!”

    I’m a 33-year-old woman from the UK. I’ve been a dentist for 10 years. When I went to my interviews for university, I didn’t know what a crown or a bridge was, and if you’d have asked me what endodontics was, I would have guessed that it was the future of robotics.

    So it’s little wonder that after 5 years at university, it was a rude awakening to find that there were no essays or presentations or ‘well done you!’s to be hadin general practice – just you doing your best, in often challenging circumstances. 3 months into my first job I got crippling shoulder pain. I went home every night and cried. After two years. I was emotionally numb and honestly didn’t care if I lived any more. That’s quite a weighty state for a 25-year-old. I went in to it wanting to make a difference, quickly discovered it wasn’t for me – so I set my sights on getting good at it, and making money. I think it can be an especially challenging job for a people pleaser. I came back to live with my parents completely burned out. I took a year out, and felt myself again. Michael Jackson came to my home town, and I enjoyed dancing on the streets outside his hotel, I sang, danced, didn’t care about running into my patients and looking professional – I got me back.

    Unfortunately, my savings ran out, so I needed to work again.

    This time I got a job in a poor end of town, where the patients deserved honorary arts degrees for being so creative with the ways they damaged their teeth. They were so grateful, not one complaint. I rolled up my sleeves, and got stuck in. My assistant was hugely enthusiastic (the dentist she worked for in her home country had trained her up as an apprentice – so she knew more than she really should) – every time I did a root canal treatment, she would hold the radiograph aloft and gleefully announce, “Wooow! You ARE a PROFESSIONAL!” I never felt so happy to be at work!

    However, working in a poorer part of town had its drawbacks. The equipment was mostly always faulty, and even though I was working my socks off, I wasn’t earning much money. The sad reality of NHS dentistry in the UK is that the more you work – the less you make. The government cap the amount they will pay per course of treatment – so you get paid the same whether you do one filling, or ten. The same price whether you do one crown, or twenty. Needless to say, my patients needed a lot of work and I couldn’t sleep at night doing what is known as ‘gaming’ the system – turning a blind eye and dragging out the treatment (or just not offering treatments).

    So I got a job working as a salaried dentist in the community dental services.

    My first day was interesting. I had induction all day. And I was still getting paid. It took me ages to get used to being on a salary. I thought it was amazing! Patients don’t turn up? Still get paid. Call in sick? Still get paid. Take three weeks off to go travelling? Still get paid. A lot of money. I put on so much weight in that first year. I was going out to dinners all the time, I actually had some cash to spend! I was also getting to treat nervous patients and have as much time as I wanted to spend with them.

    The only thing that ruins community dentistry, is the same thing that has ruined dentistry in the UK – the politics. Because it wasn’t a money making business, I saw a lot of wastage and time not being used efficiently. We had shoddy managers, who thought it was a good idea for us to have a different nurse every day, rotate between clinics, have all instruments and burs as single use (I cringed the first time I had to throw a £25 Parapost drill into the sharps bin) and have cross infection procedures more stringent and time consuming than in your average hospital theatre. Our service was tendered out to new owners, and the ensuing stress made me leave that job and find a new one. I’ve been working 4 yeas in my current post, still in community services. Over time, I’ve done more patient management and less actual dentistry. In 4 years I’ve made no dentures, one crown, and done 4 or 5 endos. The rest has been mostly paeds and prevention on patients with special needs.

    I know that for a dentist who doesn’t really like dentistry, this job is brilliant. It’s also my Achilles heel. Our service is cranking up the pressure – with streams of under 6’s coming in with masses of grotty teeth. I’m actually really good with kids, which is why I’ve been placed in my role, but it is extremely draining, and I get little out of it other than knowing that I do a good job. I’m a people pleaser, and I find myself overcompensating for the trauma of the procedures with massive amounts of praise and enthusiasm. I thought I could do that forever. Until.. My manager wanted me to discharge the young adults on my list so I could see more children… and the stress of it made my back give way. I just don’t want to. I realise that my pain, and probably that pain I’ve always lived with as a dentist, is just the fear of saying enough’s enough, love yourself way more than this and do something you’ll want to do.

    So I’ll be seeing an occupational psychologist at the end of the month for some help with narrowing down my choices.

    I’m a prayerful person and I’ve no doubts that I’ll be okay. I’ve had some very privileged moments as a dentist, no doubt. In every job I’ve had, I’ve had the chance to make a significant difference in at least one person’s life, whether it be spotting an oral cancer, giving someone their smile and their pride back, or meeting people I would never get to encounter otherwise. I still cry when I think of one particular lady who had HIV, who was finally going to see her mother in Africa after seven years of being too ashamed because of her teeth. She said my work would probably last longer than she would, but that she would make the most of it. I pray that she’s wrong.

    Anyway, as an aside. When people ask me what I do for a living, I reply, “I put people in and out of pain for a living.” I once read a book on how to make conversation (I sound like such a no-mates) which said if you just give yourself a label it doesn’t say anything interesting about what you actually do. I’d add to that, you are not your job. You’re you 🙂

    It’s so late here and I should have gone to bed ages ago to curtail the waffle. Great blog, it’s inspiring to know that someone out there is living the ‘early retirement’ dream lol 🙂

    1. We have a lot in common, Jas. In my experiences, what started out as some good experiences turned into bad ones. It sounds like you have had a similar roller coaster ride. I worked in an insurance practice (high volume, low pay,) and I hated that I couldn’t give my patients the time I wanted and worried about the equipment, materials, quality, etc. Sadly, in those environments you have to cut corners somewhere to be able to keep the business open. I then went to very high quality offices, but even being in my “dream job,” there were also a lot of problems. I can only conclude that all jobs have the ups and downs, so it just makes it easier to roll through the ups and downs if you can at least enjoy the ride.

      You sound like you have a great attitude and that you are very clear about how you want your life to look. I have no doubt that you will find that. Good for you for taking the steps you want, and good luck! I hope you’ll continue to share your story and its progression with me!

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