Some days, I really hate my job.
Don’t get me wrong. I know that I am extremely lucky to have secured an associate position in a thriving private practice in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I’m fortunate to have a steady paycheck that keeps a roof over my head, clothes on my back, and food on the dinner table. I have a lot to be thankful for.
But there are always those days, those patients, those supposed-to-be-straightforward appointments that make me seriously question my decision to enter the dental profession.
I first considered becoming a dentist when I was fourteen years old. I had just completed a rudimentary assessment at school designed to extrapolate the desired qualities of my ideal future profession. For twenty minutes, I answered a series of questions such as, “Do you consider yourself an honest person?” and, “Would you be comfortable working with blood?” and, “Are you able to remain calm when provoked?” I started to suspect that my guidance counselor was less interested in helping me identify my life’s calling and more interested in sniffing out any potential psychopaths and serial killers in my class.
Presumably because I had answered that I did believe in helping people and I was open to working in healthcare, the results of this questionnaire listed “Doctor/Dentist” as a suggested career path for me, much to the delight and relief of my parents. After all, at fourteen, the only definitive plans I had made for my future involved marrying a Backstreet Boy, getting my driver’s license, and eventually making the leap from glasses to contacts, not necessarily in that order.
Now, almost two decades later, I’m doing exactly what this little survey told me I am supposed to be doing with the rest of my life. But every now and then, some days are really tough. Some days I give 100% and it’s still not enough. Patients complain that they’re not happy. They express zero confidence in my knowledge and abilities as a professional. They demand favors and free work, refunds and re-dos.
Though I’ve endured my fair share of criticism over the years, I would be lying if I said that this does not take both a physical and emotional toll on me. Some evenings, I drive home in tears or cry myself to sleep because I can’t shake off a disgruntled patient’s particularly nasty remarks and my failure to meet their extremely high expectations. At the end of the day, all I want to do is be able to do good for others.
Realizing that there was little I could do to alter the reality of the less enjoyable aspects of working in private practice, I began looking for ways to increase my enjoyment of dentistry and to rediscover why I chose it in the first place. I turned to volunteering, knowing that somewhere out there, my skills could be used to make a contribution for good.
This past weekend, I had the privilege of taking part in the California Dental Association’s CDA Cares event in San Diego. This is a program that brings together volunteer dental professionals and members of the community to provide free dental treatment to more than 2,000 patients each time it is held. As an estimated 10 million residents of the state of California experience barriers to dental care, events such as these are desperately needed to provide dental services to the underserved, as well as to raise public awareness of unmet oral health care needs.
I awoke at 4:30 a.m. to pick up my assistant and drive to the Del Mar Fairgrounds, where hundreds of people were already waiting in line to be seen. Many patients had traveled several hours by public transportation to camp out overnight in the rain for a chance to receive dental treatment that would otherwise be impossible for them to obtain. I chuckled to myself, thinking about all the times a patient in our practice had complained about having to wait ten minutes while seated in one of our white leather reception area chairs or helping themselves to a freshly brewed coffee from the Keurig machine. It was clear that things were going to be quite different today.
The doctor who led our clinical orientation concluded his presentation by saying, “For some of you, this will be one of the most life-changing experiences you will ever have.” He could not have been more right about that. Despite the cold and dreary weather, there was an unmistakably high level of positive energy in the air. There is something truly magical about thousands of people sharing in the excitement of coming together to help others.
From the moment we arrived until my last patient threw his arms around me in a big bear hug of gratitude, it was smiles all around. At times, it was hard to tell who was more thrilled to be there, the patients or the doctors. I realized that I had not heard this many people thank other people so emphatically and enthusiastically in a long, long time. It was incredible.
Since being appointed to the faculty at the University of California-San Diego School of Medicine earlier this year, I have had the opportunity to take part in the UCSD Pre-Dental Society’s Free Dental Clinic. This is a student-run organization that provides dental services to underserved patient populations in the San Diego area. It was refreshing to see so many of the students I work with eagerly volunteering to serve six-hour shifts as chairside assistants, runners, and translators on a weekend that fell right in the middle of their final exam period. If there are any dental school admissions officers reading this, I want you to consider that the GPAs of your applicants from UCSD probably could have been a little higher this semester had they spent their Saturday and Sunday holed up in a library gripping a textbook instead of a suction tip or a patient’s hand.
Perhaps the most encouraging thing I learned from my experience was that the large majority of the dental professionals who participated in this event have endeavored to stay actively involved in dental outreach missions and initiatives throughout their careers. Though there were plenty of first-timers like myself, most of the people working around me had been going to similar events multiple times a year for ages. They live for this and keep coming back for more.
I learned that it takes a certain type of healthcare professional to sign up for this kind of humanitarian work. When many of the typical motivational trappings of volunteer work—self-promotion, resume padding, increasing chances of admission to educational programs—are no longer applicable, it’s not easy to find a licensed practitioner who will voluntarily give up precious days of rest, vacation, or production in favor of performing free treatment for patients whom they will likely never see again. It would be so much easier to just send a check in the mail, make an online donation, or host a glamorous charity dinner to collect money to support and celebrate these efforts from a safe distance.
But that isn’t good enough for me. I need to be right where the action is. The dentists I met through this experience showed me that it is not only possible to strike a balance between a lucrative dental practice and a commitment to outreach, it is absolutely essential to achieving career satisfaction if what lies at the heart of your work is doing good for others and, in turn, being changed for good.
Diana Nguyen, DDS