Oh The Places You May Go!

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Who knew that answering an ad for a dental assistant, over four decades ago, would lead to an amazing career in dentistry and beyond. I entered into the profession during a time when ten percent of the classes were women. In my class, I was one of 24 women in a class of 158. But, I am getting ahead of myself.

I had planned on a career in education and psychology. When I had returned home from a semester away, my parents suggested I apply for a job. I answered two ads: one for a record store (yes that was a store that sold vinyl records) and one for a dental assistant. I had no experience with either so I started working for both. After a few months, I had decided the dental assistant position was more interesting to me. I worked for a periodontist and did everything from office management to dental assisting. Those were the days of paper appointments and billing, so there was never a lack of things to do. He had mentored and guided me towards dental hygiene school. Once in dental hygiene school, I had noticed the abundance of men attending dental school and decided, if they can do it, so can I. Mind you, there were very few women in that dental school class but the hygiene students were taking identical courses as the dental students, hence my decision to pursue a larger dental career.

Dental school was not overly difficult, after attending a rigorous dental hygiene program at Loyola University. With the basic dental science coursework being the same as the dental students, and experience with patients chair side, the program was not that grueling. As most things women, there was a small detour, but not a complete roadblock. A week before dental school, I got married. Eloped, actually. Upon my return home, my father reminded me I had four years of dental school ahead of me and not to do anything foolish. Six weeks later, I was pregnant. My daughter was born between the summer of freshman and sophomore year in dental school. Our apartment became “study central” during the dental school years, as friends wanted to see the baby as well as get some work done. I was unable to share in the celebratory champagne passed around the arena at graduation since I was pregnant with my son.

Dental school then and now are two different experiences. Without going into too much detail, we were not exactly welcome in the ranks. Aside from our male classmates sharing that we took the place of their buddies, faculty judged us differently. One elderly clinician asked me what I was doing, during a clinical procedure. I erroneously thought he wanted me to explain the procedure, as I was restoring the distal of a lower premolar. Upon the second questioning, I discussed the clinical aspects of the prep, the need for a base and the amalgam. Finally, after a third time, he said, “No, I meant what you are doing here. Shouldn’t you be home having babies?” Yes, things like this did happen and thankfully they do not happen anymore.

Our only experience with “practice management” was the day we, the women, went into a lecture hall. We listened to the merits of not going “out” in anything that considered casual wear, since we may run into a patient. The essence was: don’t wear curlers in your hair outside of the house. Fast forward to today, when we are all out and about in our casual, athletic wear while shopping (or even working out), the conversation seemed absurd.

But, the reality of not having much practice management background was truly an issue. Many of us started our own practices back in the day. We became CEO’s, CFO’s, HR managers and purchasing agents, all without any knowledge. It was not that difficult to find an office space to lease, but the financing was another story. When I approached several banks, all wanted my father’s signature on the loan documents. Only one bank would take a risk on a women dental professional. Now, banks are bending over backwards to encourage loans and business plans.

During the course of my dental career, I have had some incredible experiences. I adjudicated claims for a major dental benefit company. I had the opportunity to teach in dental school and several dental hygiene schools. I directed a dental hygiene program (one of my bucket list items), which was another interesting challenge without a true MBA.

The ability to write, for some, is akin to “pulling teeth”, to use a dental analogy. I have always enjoyed it, and have had the opportunity to develop content for several dental publications and textbooks. For over five years, until the magazine closed, I was the editor of Women Dentist Journal. It was amazing to showcase women, their successes and spotlight products that were female focused with ergonomics in mind.

I have had the opportunity to be an opinion leader with many dental manufacturers. It is an eye opening experience to see what happens on the other side of the table, so to speak. We all use dental products, but it is fascinating to know how they are created, tested, evaluated and marketed. Working with industry, I am able to voice the concerns of many women dentists on the nature of dental equipment. Historically, most equipment is fabricated for an average male’s body and hand. With women being 50% of dental school classes, the focus needs to me made for the average female body, as well. Dental stools, handpieces and instruments should not be one size fits all.

Along with a clinical practice, I was the longest running Editor for the American Association of Women Dentist’s Chronicle newsletter.   I became the President of AAWD in 2015. As with any organization, it faces challenges in membership and participation. With financial obligations of student loans, business loans, mortgages, family and children, we all have to make careful decisions as to where we are spending our extra funds. One of my highest achievements has been the ability to mentor young women dentists while they are in school and as they enter the profession. I love sharing my excitement for dentistry and the ability to see that their degree has many aspects to explore, aside from clinical.

I have also found great gratification in volunteering for my community. I served for twelve years as a library trustee and twelve years as a high school board member. Both elected positions, both full of incredible triumphs and daunting challenges. Working on both boards gave me a knowledge of a world outside of dentistry, one about local funding, negotiating with labor unions and first amendment rights. I was fortunate to represent my community at many conferences and had experiences with a variety of individuals who taught me so much about the law. I have the honor to serve as Chair of the Fire and Police Commission for my village. I have been a commissioner for the past twelve years. We have the privilege of hiring the young women and men who will serve and protect our community for the next thirty years. Working closely with the police department has also given me a perspective that a community member may not have. Finally, I have had the unique opportunity to “talk teeth” to kindergarten students for the past eleven years during Children’s Dental Health Month. Their questions always enlighten and amaze me. It is due to the dedication of their teacher, my daughter, Erin, to continue the conversation about the importance of dental care for their growing dentition.   Who knows where the next woman dentist will be inspired?

When I started my journey, I never knew all the places I was able to go.

After all that I have done in and outside of dentistry, I can say, with true conviction, that I am proud to serve this profession and have the ability to be a large part of the healthcare of my family of patients. I have never looked back to say “what if” because I love what I do. One of the most important facets of my life is and has always been my family. Without the support of my husband, Bob, I never would have achieved the success inside and outside of my practice. My children and my grandchildren continue to be the center point of my life. As US World and News Report recently claimed that dentistry is the number one profession for 2017, I believe it is the number one profession for all women. You have freedom to be your own boss, schedule your own hours, take your own detours, create your own team and mentor women as to the awesomeness of our chosen field. Life is good.

My wishes for any women in the dental field:

Take time for yourself. We do so much; we are caregivers to so many: our parents, children, and husbands, significant others, sisters, brothers, team members. We share our time with everyone. We have to find time for ourselves. Take (at least) five minutes every day to do something you love. Take more than that, but set a goal to find time for yourself.

Be a mentor. You never know where someone wants to go and sharing your excitement for our profession may guide them on a different path than originally planned.

Help the next one in line. If you are involved with any organization, help someone advance or give them keys to find their own success. Women need to help other women, be it one of your team members, someone in a professional society or someone in your community.

Expand your horizons. See what is outside of your clinical doors. There is always a need for your expertise in other areas, aside from clinical dentistry. The dental industry is changing, with all the mergers and acquisitions. If the time becomes right, see what is out there.

Pay it forward. Give back to your community. They support you in your professional life; find something to do to champion them.

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Sheri B. Doniger, DDS is a leading dental clinician, author, international educator, and consultant who currently practices dentistry in Lincolnwood, IL. An avid researcher, Dr. Doniger frequently contributes to a variety of dental publications on topics ranging from clinical practice to effective communications. Dr. Doniger currently writes regular columns for DrBicuspid.com entitled “Sheri’s Solutions”. Dr. Doniger is a prominent advocate for mentoring and is a voice within the industry for enhancing ergonomics in the practice lives of women dentists. As a health and wellness advocate, Dr. Doniger presents at many conferences, where her topics often center on team, ergonomics and women in the dental industry. She is an active member of numerous professional societies, including the American Dental Association, Illinois State Dental Society, Chicago Dental Society, and the American Association of Women Dentists, as well as being a Fellow in the American College of Dentists and the International College of Dentists. Dr. Doniger is a past President of the American Association of Women Dentists

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