What’s my biggest regret – dental school. I don’t regret going; I regret not doing it right. I would go through dental school all over again … and pay for it. Why? You see, I was an unlikely dental student. I never dreamed of being a dentist. In fact, I applied at the last minute after realizing that my original goal of being a university professor wasn’t going to work. So why dentistry? I was doing an undergrad research thesis on the impact of stress on crickets. Yes – crickets. I used to tape my sleeves to my wrist and tuck my pants into my socks before going into a room full of insects to collect my test specimens. You know that scene in Indiana Jones with all the bugs? This was worse. Not only was it creepy, it was boring. Research takes a lot of time – waiting for experiments to finish, spending countless hours analyzing results, getting results you don’t want, and then starting all over again with new experiments. I needed an escape plan. So, I walked over to the university guidance department and asked in desperation what I could do after I graduated. The young counsellor opened a filing cabinet labeled science careers and there was only one thing left in it – an application for the DAT. I didn’t know what that was, but I applied right away as the deadline was coming up. Luckily, I did well on the test. Luckily, I had all the course requirements. Luckily, I got into the only 2 dental schools I applied to. And with that, I untaped my sleeves, untucked my pants and walked away from research and into dentistry.
Dental school sucked. I felt like the shortest person on a basketball team of all-stars. Everyone seemed smarter, happier and born to drill. I struggled so much in pre-clinic that the head instructor took me aside and told me I need more practice. I cried in-front of him and then spent my free time in the lab for months drilling plastic teeth while my classmates were hanging out giving each other high-fives. I felt like I was benched and that I would never play with the real players. Well, the extra practice worked, and I was able to start working on live patients. You know how some patients are scared to go to the dentist? I feel for them. Because I was scared to be their dentist. I was so intimidated by my instructors that I was afraid to ask a question. It was hard to be judged each day and given a mark out of 10. I even got dinged once for having a hair out of place. I never thought I would meet my clinical requirements. I never thought I would graduate. But then, I did.
I thought being a dentist would be better than being a dental student. It wasn’t. I carried my shame and feelings of unworthiness into my new career. I went from being an unconfident student to being an unconfident dentist. I was miserable. I switched offices. Still miserable. I started looking at other careers. Crickets didn’t seem so bad anymore. And then life happened. My father passed away, and 2 months later, my first child was born. I experienced the deepest sadness and then the highest joy while not working for months. Do you know what that experience taught me? That I missed dentistry.
I was a dentist again, but this time, I was ready to play on the team. I just needed to figure out what my position was going to be. I needed to do dentistry with a purpose. I became an educator at a dental hygiene college and then I started practicing at a public health clinic. Helping students and helping those in need changed something inside me. I started enjoying dentistry, I started becoming confident, and I stopped feeling scared. It felt great to be back in the game.
Dentistry took over my life. I got involved in organized dentistry, I advocated, I gave presentations, I wrote articles, and I promoted oral health. I was the only delegate to recommend keeping fluoride in our community water, and when the councillors voted, they were 100% in favour. At that moment, I felt like I achieved what I was meant to do – help others. It was the equivalent of winning the championship game. Looking back, I can’t believe I ever thought of not being a dentist.
So, after 22 years as a dentist, what did I learn?
Life is about choices.
It was my choice to have a lousy dental experience because I chose to feel inferior. It was my choice to continue feeling that way after I graduated. It was my choice to not to ask for help. It was my choice to suffer in silence instead of sharing my struggles.
Now, it is my choice to be the best I can be and to keep getting better.
It is my choice to be happy… and it’s yours.
Maybe dentistry is the perfect career for you. Maybe it’s not. Are you sitting on the bench or playing the game? Find your position. Get the ball and see what you can do with it. It’s your choice.
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