From laying asphalt to dentistry: My road to public health

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 indeed.com 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.” 

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