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Alaska woman returns home to work as dentist under childhood doctor

Editor’s note: This is article, republished with permission, originally appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on May 22, 2017.

Sam Friedman, Daily News Miner

Fairbanks, Ala. — New Fairbanks dentist Dr. Ecsile Chang knew what she wanted to be when she grew up at a younger age than most children.

Dr. Chang

Dr. Chang

Chang remembers always being interested in teeth as a child in Fairbanks. She’d wiggle her baby teeth before they were really ready to come out, and she used to hide her grandfather’s dentures. She’d also build toy retainers with chewing gum and put them in the freezer. They mimicked the shape of retainers, but thawed quickly when taken out and put in her mouth. When she was a student at Tanana Middle School, she used to tell her orthodontist that one day she was going to come back and take his job.

After four years of dental school, Chang, now 29, will get to realize her dream of working as a dentist. She plans to move back home this summer to work for her childhood dentist.

Chang is one of the first Korean-American dentists to work in Fairbanks. She’s also a rare homegrown dentist in a state that doesn’t have its own dental school.

In a telephone interview this week from Las Vegas, Chang was still reliving her recent graduation ceremony. Chang graduated this spring from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas with a Doctor of Dental Medicine. Her two Fairbanks mentors, childhood dentist Dr. Mike Helmbrecht and childhood orthodontist Dr. Walt Babula, surprised her by traveling to Nevada for the ceremony.

“I saw them and I teared up. It was something that I wasn’t expecting and the fact that they came all the way from Alaska just for me is more than words can even explain,” she said.

Chang is the youngest of Song Chang and Hyo Young Han’s three daughters. Her parents are Korean immigrants who came to Alaska in 1978. Her parents spoke no English when they arrived, and their luggage consisted of one duffel bag, Chang said. Her father founded the business Song’s Cleaning Service here.

Chang starts her new career with an acute awareness of the work her parents did that allowed her to pursue dental school.

“Growing up and witnessing the hard work my dad had to go through, made me understand what hard work is and appreciate the things that are taken for granted on a daily basis. It was my father who inspired me by telling me that one can never dream too big and that anything is possible,” she said in an essay about herself and her family that she wrote in preparation for being interviewed for this article.

Chang went to the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where she helped co-found a predental club to help fellow undergraduates learn about preparing for dental school. She took every opportunity to learn about dentistry that she could, including her own wisdom teeth extraction surgery, which she elected to do with local anesthesia. Before the operation, she asked the oral surgeon to put up a mirror so she could watch the surgery herself.

Chang said dental school was hard, especially the first two years. During her time in Las Vegas, Chang served on her class council, worked at a veterans dental clinic, and helped co-found an Asian American Student Dental Association chapter at her school. She also researched the links between oral bacteria and colon cancer.

In her first year of dental school in Nevada, Chang married Dennis Achman, her high school sweetheart who she met as a freshman at Lathrop High School. Chang said she and Achman enjoyed living in the desert, but they wanted to settle back in Fairbanks where they have extended families, Chang said.

Some things they never got used to in Nevada, like the extreme heat and the heavy traffic. To this day, Chang said she doesn’t understand how often people manage to get into car crashes in a city that doesn’t have snow.

A few weeks ago, the couple went camping at the Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada. They forgot to bring flashlights because they’re used to camping under the midnight sun. They had to use their car headlights to set up their tent.

“We both had great childhoods growing up and we knew that one day when we wanted to raise a family that (Alaska) would be the best place to raise it,” she said.

This summer Chang, Achman and their pet Yorkshire terrier plan to road trip back to Fairbanks. In the near term, Chang will work as an associate dentist at Helmbrecht’s clinic on Third Street. If it goes well, she’d like to take over the clinic when Helmbrecht retires.

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