5 lessons from my first six months of residency

As I glance out the window and take a sip of my morning coffee, I’m handed a medical history for the patient that has just arrived. A hefty list of medical conditions is scribbled on the first page. Page two has a medication list of many consonants and syllables that I still am unable to properly pronounce. The “Allergies” section has epinephrine in it along with the word “anaphylaxis” written out beside ‘acetaminophen.’

Dr. Vaughn

Dr. Vaughn

The patient is here for a full mouth extraction, and not a moment too soon. He’s planned for a heart valve replacement in three weeks and he needs any oral infection taken care of right away. In the hospital, we call this “dental optimization.”

In dental school, a medical history like this would have had me on Google for a solid hour. Skimming Wiki pages and wondering if I should call the patient’s doctor or a spouse or at least somebody to see if it’s really OK to pull teeth on this very sick person.

Things feel different now. I’m six months into my GPR and, even though I’m no expert, I feel more comfortable handling a patient encounter like this one.

My first six months of residency has been a refreshing transition from dental school. I’ve learned a lot about clinical technique, but most importantly, I’ve learned what it means to be a dentist in and out of the clinic. Nowadays, we all prefer those concise lists with bolded titles. So here’s my list of the most important things I’ve learned from my first six months of GPR residency:

  1. You will mess up.

If there’s one thing I’m sure of as a new dentist, it’s that you will mess up. Many times. My first six months have seen numerous pulp exposures, post and core procedures gone wrong, dentures with no retention, more root tips broken off than I dare to count. Pulling a tooth and then watching in horror as the maxillary sinus membrane stares back at me.

I wish these things weren’t on my record, but they are. And what I’m learning is that in dentistry these things are unavoidable. That’s why consent forms and pre-procedure discussions are so important. A good dentist is a prepared one. Never skip the consent form. Always make time for the risk/benefit/complication discussion with your patient. It could make all the difference.

  1. Push through the “oh-no” moments.

No one likes having these mess-ups on their record. But the truth is that they’re a part of becoming a mature dentist. These inevitable “oh-no” moments force us to get our hands dirty. When you break off that maxillary tooth. When you can’t find a purchase point on #17. When you just can’t seem to make the tofflemire do what it’s supposed to do. The room jumps up 15 degrees and the sweat beads form on your forehead.

These “oh-no” moments determine the type of dentist we’re going to be. You can always succumb to the pressure and give up, put the tools down and settle for a mediocre result. Or, you can keep composure and push through. Pushing through those few “oh-no” minutes will go a long way in developing maturity as a health professional and your ability to handle future challenges.

  1. There’s always something to learn.

We all know this. By accepting the three letters behind our names, we’ve committed to a lifetime of education. In dental school, I can’t tell you how many times I heard the phrase “lifelong student.” This has become a humbling reality in residency. The more interactions I have with attendings and the more patients that walk through the door and the more lectures that I hear, it’s more and more apparent that I know nothing. Dentistry is a bottomless pit of information. And what I’m learning is that now, and especially after residency, it will be incredibly important to always make time for learning. Never lose your inner student drive.

  1. It’s rarely about the hand skills.

At the end of the day, the relationship is between the patient and you, not between the patient and the work you do. Patients want to feel comfortable in the dental chair. When friends and family ask me how they should choose a dentist, I always tell them to go with someone they feel comfortable with. We are all capable of doing good work. We’ve all jumped through the same hoops and passed the same exams and signed all of the same dotted lines. We can all do the dentistry.

The hard part is connecting with the patient. It’s challenging at times to get out of your own headspace and concentrate on the person in front of you. But much of what makes a good dentist happens before picking up the handpiece.

  1. Bridges aren’t for burning.

You meet a lot of people as a dentist. Patients and sales reps and classmates and co-residents and staff. You meet physicians and specialists and those heavily involved in organized dentistry. Those connections you make and those friendships that come from them are important. What I’ve learned is that relationships are all that really matter.

I went back home to Alabama for Christmas a couple of weeks ago. I saw classmates. I saw family. I revisited all of my favorite places. Everything was is in its right place.

I love all of these people back home. We’ve gone our separate ways. We’re all over the country, but the bridges are still there. We can cross them whenever we like. That’s what is so special about this profession. It’s a small world made of many bridges.
Six months of residency and my first visit back home have taught me that these bridges aren’t for burning. Your personal life and your career are only as strong as the support system that surrounds you. I’m incredibly thankful for all of the people in my life and for the support system I have around the country. Always stay connected with the ones you love and who helped you get where you are.

Dr. Joe Vaughn is a New Dentist Now guest blogger. He grew up in Alabama and recently graduated from The University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Dentistry in 2015. He now lives in Seattle, Washington, where he attends the General Practice Residency at the University of Washington. Two cups of coffee, writing and indie music are everyday occurrences for Joe. Go Seahawks and Roll Tide!

2 comments

  • Very well said. I’ve been a lifetime student for 25 years. I have a small dental practice where I enjoy talking and getting to know my patients. You are correct on all points, anyone can do dentistry, but when you have compassion and love for your fellow man, we can make a difference! Thanks!

  • Welcome to the Pacific Northwest:) I had fun reading your blog while at lunch. I hope you have leveled off of the”oh nos” in your dental career. My sister is a dentist in Bremerton and She talked me into going through hygiene school when I was 32. She and I can now talk about mucogingival junctions and incisive papillas. It’s very fun:)

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