When I exited the University of Michigan School of Dentistry after graduation, I had great visions for the career on which I was embarking. I had just spent four years perfecting the “ideal”: the ideal crown prep, the ideal treatment plan, the ideal denture series. I would use these ideal techniques to build a patient pool filled with perfect mouths. I had all the knowledge I needed and a plan in place to go out and make a difference.
I had all the knowledge I needed and a plan in place to go out and make a difference.
It turns out that the reality of life is very different from the dreams of a starry-eyed student. Procedures don’t always happen according to plan, and not every process will be by-the-book. For example: several months ago I received a frantic phone call from a patient that had fractured off his front tooth at the gum line. He was scheduled to attend his brother’s wedding that night. Not only was he desperate to be whole again for the wedding; he was also in pain.
Unsure of how I was going to make him whole again with such a small window of time to work with, I threw all my archetypal dental training out the window – and I doubt there has ever been a patient more grateful for an incomplete root canal and a temporary post and crown. It was hardly an ideal scenario; however, the patient was, out of pain, looked like himself, and made it to the wedding on time. In return for being resourceful under less-than-ideal conditions, I was rewarded with a loyal patient for life. Working outside the box was the best solution I could provide for this patient under the circumstances.
...the real world has imperfections - and many patients cannot afford, or do not want, the ideal course of action.
As a practicing dentist, I encounter challenges every day. In an ideal world, every patient would heed my advice, all patients could afford care, and all treatment plans would be performed in a timely and complete manner. However, the real world has imperfections - and many patients cannot afford, or do not want, the ideal course of action. It is personally challenging for me to accept that a patient may choose to extract a tooth with recurrent decay when I know that tooth could be saved with a new crown. Yet if the patient does not have the finances (or the desire) to follow my preferred course of action, then my job becomes to help my patient figure out his or her personal goals and to match them with my desire to provide quality care. Ultimately, my job is to help my patients achieve and maintain health on their own terms by providing information, support, and acceptance - even if their chosen route to a healthy mouth isn’t the same as my own.
Experiencing this reality over the past five years has re-shaped my view of perfection. Dental school teaches the “ideal” in order to provide framework for a less-than-perfect world. I am trained to know what perfection looks like, but recognize perfection’s inherent limitations. I cannot make choices for people, nor can I change the financial aspect of dentistry. However, I can use my knowledge and creativity to help my patients achieve healthy, beautiful smiles, even outside of the dental school paradigm. With experience I‘ve learned to embrace the innate imperfection of my chosen field and am better able to create healthy, happy patients…and really, isn’t that perfection in itself?