Becoming fearless: My path to pediatric dentistry

When I first started on my path to becoming a dentist, I never thought I would be finishing my first year of pediatric dentistry residency nearly four years after graduation. I often think about how life would be different if I had applied to residency straight after dental school – and almost immediately, I reflect on each triumph and setback, and cannot help but feel thankful and humbled.

Photo of Dr. Khan

Dr. Khan

The transition between being a GP resident and working as a new dentist in the Summer of 2017 was incredibly challenging. I followed my husband to Philadelphia and started fresh in a new city. It seems obvious, but I was a little shell shocked when I started practicing; I was often the only dentist in a multispecialty office in North Philadelphia.

In dental school and during my GPR, I was seeing one patient at a time. My first patient in the real world seem like three patients – a hygiene check, #30-O composite and an emergency. It goes without saying that I was overwhelmed. My dental assistant with 20-plus years of experience pretty much held my hand through my first few weeks. Over the next few months, I built a strong rapport with my patients but found myself increasingly frustrated. Multiple times a week, I would see patients with a deep-rooted fear of the dentist that stemmed from childhood trauma. I wanted to approach this problem from the beginning of one’s personal dental journey.

Transitioning into a role where I was only seeing children was purely a matter of happenstance and being in the right place at the right time. Since dental school, I have been passionate about public health in pursuing a prevention-centered approach to dentistry. The dentist in “my practice” that was seeing pediatric patients was moving for a new job. My boss, who was aware of my interest and passion for pediatric dentistry, asked me if I wanted to take over this vacancy. I realized that this was an opportunity I should not pass up. I admit I was a bit out of my comfort zone but found comfort in the fact that I had lots of exposure to pediatric dentistry during dental school and during my GPR. In my new role, my practice was limited to the comprehensive dental care of children. My job was not only dynamic due to the rambunctious patient population but also because I was traveling in between multiple different offices in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. The dynamic nature of my schedule was held down by the fact that I would travel between offices with the same group of dental assistants. They provided a degree of similarity across the offices that were pretty different in the socioeconomic spectrum of the families we saw.

Almost immediately, everyone around me saw a change in my attitude and outlook in regards to my job. Every day, I found myself happier and excited to go to work. I quickly built a rapport with the parents and children – and even received some heartwarming hugs in the first week!

I learned a lot about myself during this time. In the beginning, I did struggle with stainless steel crowns as I had to set aside my love for chamfer and shoulder margins. Slowly, with the help of my incredible dental assistants, I began to develop systems and processes to improve the workflow in our offices. We created a protocol about scheduling patients to maximize efficiency with a three-column schedule. Logistical achievements aside, I realized that I would be a successful pediatric dentist due to my easy-going demeanor and my ability to connect with my patients. For example, a year of treating a 16-year old patient with severe dental anxiety, she was able to transition from needing nitrous for a routine prophy to being able to sit through a Class III restoration with confidence. My mission was to build a strong and trusting foundation between kids and their dentist at an early age to set them up for a lifetime of good oral health. Just by nature of my personality, I found myself with a natural predilection towards children but realized I was lacking some key tangible aspects of formal training.

My decision to apply for pediatric dental residency was obvious but absolutely came with some challenges. Having been working in my position for a year and a half I had established rapport with my patients and their families. I was seeing patients coming back from recall with improved behavior and oral hygiene. However, I realized that I needed to formalize my training to fill in the missing puzzle pieces and add more tools to my toolbox. I wanted to be skilled, knowledgeable and proficient in every aspect of pediatric dentistry. I wanted to develop my skillset regarding techniques and materials that I knew about conceptually. I wanted to give my patients the best chance to ensure oral health rehabilitation and maintenance.

On the interview trail, I was delighted to find practicing dentists just like me who had spent time in the workforce and were looking to go back to residency. Everyone’s journey was unique but I found so many similarities. It was as if I found this community of peers with the same passions and aspirations. After working two years in private practice as the solo dentist, I was absolutely giddy.

Flash forward and I can’t believe I am more than halfway done with my first year of residency at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York. The patient population in Brooklyn is incredibly diverse ranging across different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. At my program, we see a large volume of patients which is excellent for developing speed and efficiency. I love that within the first month of the program, I was doing full-mouth rehabilitation in the operating room. Obviously over the past eight months, I have learned new techniques and clinical skills however, I have noticed a big change in how I approach pediatric dentistry. I feel like I have become fearless. Prior to starting residency, I would be terrified of treating an F1 patient coming in for an emergency. By sheer necessity, I have become more confident and competent and I am excited to see how I continue to grow over the next year and lead in the role of chief resident.

I strongly believe that as dentists, we are creatures of habit and routine. But at the same time, we are intrinsically self-motivated and want to do the best for our patients. Personally, at some point I realized that self-learning through in person and online CE wasn’t sufficient to provide the best care for our patients. I found that my ability to practice as a pediatric dentist was limited. I wanted to formalize training to encapsulate the personal and professional identities that I strived to have. My advice for anyone who has been working and is considering going back to residency… Be brave, and take the jump – your patients will thank you.

Dr. Sarah Khan is a New Dentist Now guest blogger. She grew up in Long Island, New York and graduated Stony Brook School of Dental Medicine in 2016. While in dental school, she concurrently completed a Master’s in Public Health. She went on to complete her GPR at NY Presbyterian/Weill Cornell in 2017 and subsequently worked in Philadelphia, PA for two years. In the summer of 2019 she started her pediatric dentistry residency at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY. She is passionate about health advocacy and is always looking to get involved with organized dentistry on a local, state and national level. In her free time she loves to travel with her husband, complete 2000+ piece jigsaw puzzles and laugh.  

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