From laying asphalt to dentistry: My road to public health

By | February 6, 2020
Photo of Dr. Norlin as a volunteer firefighter

During college and dental school, Dr. Norlin lived at home still responded to calls as a volunteer firefighter when he was at home or not involved with school.

It was another exciting day in the summer of 2011 working for the City of Oregon City Public Works laying asphalt, flagging traffic, crack sealing streets and any other various tasks assigned to us by the city. My dad had been an engineer for Oregon City, so during high school and college I had worked part-time for different departments including engineering, utility billings, code enforcement, and the construction crews. I had joked that in the same week I could send a letter for a construction plot that was denied, stop traffic while doing construction, write a parking ticket for an expired meter, and shut off a person’s water for not paying their bills.

As we were working, one of the career employees mentioned a job for a dentist working for the local government. I joked and told him that I was still taking the prerequisites, and that you actually have go to dental school after college. I remember walking through the halls and seeing the paper application on the bulletin board in the break room. No time to worry about any job applications for a dentist. I was still studying to get ready for the Dental Admission Test.

Flashforward to May 2016 and the graduation date for me was fast approaching, but I was still more concerned about getting my graduation requirements completed than focusing on jobs searches. One night I sat down on the computer to do a job search on in the local area when I saw an application for “Public Health Dentist.” Coincidentally it was from the same place and county that my co-worker had mentioned to me all those years ago.

How exciting was that!? It was in the same community that I had lived and worked in for most of my life. I have been involved with helping the local community and the citizens through church events, my past side jobs with Oregon City and the fire department, so the thought of helping and serving people’s dental needs in my own community seemed right up my alley.

Photo of Dr. Norlin working for the City of Oregon City Public Works

Dr. Norlin worked for the City of Oregon City Public Works laying asphalt, flagging traffic, crack sealing streets and any other various tasks assigned to us by the city.

I remember going to the interview and the dental director asked me questions about the job and what was my commitment to the community. I humorously explained about how I had crack sealed the street right in front of the clinic when I worked construction and that I had been taking care of the citizens as a volunteer firefighter/EMT since 2011 so it was exciting to be able to help the citizens in the county as a dentist. Overall I felt that the interview went really well.

I had left my interview and went home. But no sooner was I home talking with my mother about my interview when the pager ran. During college and dental school, I lived at home so I still responded to calls as a volunteer firefighter when I was at home or not involved with school. After driving down to the fire department, I jumped out and ran to the medical crew cab pick-up truck. One of the firefighters, Dave, told me that since the rig was packed it was better to send me as an EMT with the others. Not thinking much I just jumped in and left. There would always be time to talk later with my friends.

The call was from a frequent flyer patient who sometimes drank a little too much and would slip out of the wheelchair and call 911 for a public assist. Here I was in my interview suit and tie helping the patient into the bed. We joked with the patient that I had been overdressed for the occasion and that a future doctor was seeing him, and I told him I had just had an interview for Clackamas County. We all laughed about it and then drove back to the station.

A few weeks later one of my friends from dental school had come over. We had driven through the logging roads in my Jeep and looked out upon Goat Mountain and were talking about the future and our plans. Never once thinking of the hazard and danger in every tree and stump we drove by. He was going to a one-year residency and I was just waiting to graduate to start my application for the National Guard.

After he had left I went on my computer when I noticed something. On people’s Facebook from my fire department was a symbol of a fire department badge with a black line of mourning! Oh no! I contacted one of my friends and heard the answer. The firefighter, Dave, had been killed a few hours earlier in a logging accident! My heart sank and all I could do was drive down to the fire department. After mourning and hugging fellow firefighters and friends I remember sitting in our locker room looking at Dave’s helmet, turnout gear, and boots and sobbing.

I had to go to school that next morning but once I got there, all I could do was break down in tears and tell people what had happened to my friend. I told one of our head dentists that I didn’t want to do any dentistry that day and if another student could see my patients. After some long hugs and more tears, I left OHSU and headed home still numb. Back at school a few days later a call came over my phone of an unknown number. Another one of those insurance agents probably, trying to get me to sign a disability plan, and I was in no mood to talk.

The man answered and asked if I was still interested. There was frustration in my voice when I told him that I was not interested at all. He asked, “Are you sure? You seemed so interested in the job earlier when you came in for the interview.”

Oh my goodness! This was the dental director from Clackamas offering me the public health job.

Some people compare life with its highs and lows, sorrow and joy, excitement and devastation to valleys that are deep and dark with towering mountains of light that require all your effect to climb. I find it that every time you climb a mountain and look at what is behind you and then look forward, you’ll see that you have deeper valleys and even larger mountains, higher and harder, than the one that your feet are resting on. Ahead was the challenge we all face in life with loftier mountains and abysmal valleys. And my mountains and valleys to traverse consisted of entering the world of public health.

Casey Norlin is a New Dentist Now guest blogger and went to Oregon Health and Science University. He comes from a rural background and lives outside Portland, Oregon, with his beautiful wife. Casey works in public health, has been a volunteer firefighter/advanced EMT for Colton Rural Fire District, an assistant professor for OHSU SOD, and is an Army dentist for the ORANG 41st Infantry Brigade. As of now he still hasn’t decided what he wants to do when he “grows up.” 

19 thoughts on “From laying asphalt to dentistry: My road to public health

  1. MJ Hanlon

    Wow….what an amazing story and apt description of life. Congratulations on finding your passion in life and going all out for it!

  2. GJ Christenson

    Good luck to Dr. Norlin as he pursues an honorable career in public health! I wish someone would edit the grammatical errors because it is such a great story.

  3. Scott Tomar

    What a great story. I hope Dr. Norlin pursues a career as a “real” public health dentist by completing an MPH degree and perhaps a residency in the ADA-recognized specialty of Dental Public Health. There are some great people at OHSU to talk to about that path. As important as it is to provide general dental care for underserved patients., public health is so much more.

    1. Casey Norlin

      Thank You. I do find the public health side of oral health interesting. Namely the neglect, stereotypes, fear associated with dentistry. Have the dental public health ever addressed society, media, and fear associated with dental health? I have noticed that almost every week I see some commercial, tv show, or gesture making dentists scary and fearful more than any other medical provider. What is a 7 year old who has never been to the dentist supposed to do in my chair when he remembers seeing a commercial for health insurance of a person screaming in a dental chair with the dentist laughing and poking at them.

  4. Kitsten Lampi

    Dr. Nolan- This is great! Loved the heart and passion you have for your community and beyond! -Dr. L

  5. Mika Ritvos

    A good read. Thank you for posting the link to this. You are a source of inspiration. I hope you will revisit the land of your distant roots again. Bring friends and family along . We will fire up the old sauna (you have the skills to extinguish it), swim in the lake and enjoy finnish beer & grub and discuss, from one primary dental care provider to another, the intricate challenges of the world of public health.

    1. Casey Norlin

      Thank you! I will plan to return to my native lands in the future! I loved it there. Take care and enjoy Helsinki for me:)

  6. Ann Jetton

    Reading this feels like I’m sitting across from you having coffee and listening to your heartfelt stories. We’re so proud of you and your accomplishments. Blessings and Love to you both!

  7. Bob Cullison

    I know this story firsthand as I hired Dr Norlin’s father at Oregon City around 1998. I watched this family grow up am so proud of their accomplishments and dedication to helping others. God bless you Casey as you continue your life’s journey.

    1. Casey Norlin

      Thank you Bob. It was fun working for everyone in the City of Oregon City and an amazing experience

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