Separating tragedy and dentistry: what do I miss most about dentistry?

dr. Simpson, middle, at her white coat ceremony.

Let me start by saying that I hated dental school when I was there.

My father had some undetermined health issues, so when I moved to Boston to attend Tufts University School of Dentistry, there was an ever-present concern in the back of my mind about what was wrong with him. My father was diagnosed with stage IV kidney cancer and was initially given four months to live – two months after I started dental school.

So professionally I was sitting here in my first year of a high-level university education, almost a thousand miles from home, and personally I thought my father was going to die.

Luckily he lived another two and a half years, but he finally died three days after I did part 2 of the NBDE. I think it’s fair to say that it wouldn’t surprise anyone that I hated dentistry.

dr. Simpsion spends time in her dental school lab.

When I finally finished the requirements and signed out, I felt with all my heart that I was not going to practice dentistry. In my mind, my pursuit of dentistry was twisted by my father’s illness and eventual death, and I didn’t want to be involved in dentistry in any way.

After a GPR and a few years of work, the coinciding associations of dentistry and my father’s illness and death began to separate.

It took me five years after graduating to return to Boston, which was a lifetime earlier than I ever intended. On my flight to Boston, I happened to be bumped into first class. It was the confirmation I needed that this was going to be a good trip. The amazing thing was walking around town after taking a refresher course I was there for, all I can remember were the good times: waking up early one Saturday to meet one of my friends in Barnes and Noble meeting for coffee and magazines, trying to find out where we were going to college, trying out different cupcake shops, helping one of my friends put together her wedding invitations, going to the movies or dining out, and taking my friends to the go city.

I was amazed at myself because the first few years out of school, when people asked me what I thought of Boston, my answer was without fail, “I hated it.” I would then tell that my father got sick and died while I was at school there.

It was a relief to be able to walk through Boston and feel homesick for a place that had been around for so long that would give me a jerky reaction of horror. They say time heals all wounds, but in my case, time gave me the space to separate my father’s illness from dentistry. It gave me time to have perspective and start my career and find things that I really like about it, and my career gave me things when I felt that pursuing them had cost so much.

While I like to think that my situation was unique, it was four difficult years for all of us in different ways. We were all in the trenches together, studying maniacally, trying to remember things like the anatomy of Henle’s loop, how to see a macrophage eosinophil under a microscope, how much ATP was coming out of the TCA cycle, and frantically trying to all our clinical requirements have been completed. I can still see the look on friends’ faces when we told each other things like “I still haven’t made dentures!” Or “I have to be ready by August or they’ll make sure I come back!” “My job wants me to start on July 1, but I don’t know if I’m ready!”

dr. Simpson and her classmates and friends from dental school during a ladies night out in Boston.

At that moment it all seemed so terrible, and we were all so desperate to get ready and start real life.

Now that it is over and several years have passed, I can look back on that time with great pleasure. None of my friends at school were married or had children, so we were just “kids” running in the street, and our only responsibility was to learn how to become a dentist. Our weekends were filled with HOURS of studying and lab work, followed by frenzied dancing (and drinking for those who drank – I didn’t) in bars and clubs to free our minds from the endless stressors of everyday life as dental students.

I never thought I’d be the one to say there are things in dental school that I miss. We were all in a rush to let it be over, but looking back, those grueling times of studying and completing requirements and being with my friends are some of the most special of my life.

dr. Elizabeth Simpson is a guest blogger for New Dentist Now. She grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from Tufts University School of Dental Medicine in 2010. Liz is a general dentist who works full time for two federally qualified health centers in Anderson and Elwood, Indiana. She is a member of the American Dental Association Institute for Diversity in Leadership program and started a tooth brushing program at an elementary school in Indianapolis. When not working, she enjoys reading, going to the movies, traveling and spending time with her family and friends.

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