As we prepare our hearts, minds, and bellies for the season of giving thanks, I found a symbolic comparison of those English immigrants and refugees to the journey dentists face. The definition of a pilgrim is a person who journeys to a sacred place for religious reasons. In a sense, we are a 21st century pilgrim as we journey for a decade sacrificing our pleasures and time for the opportunity to earn our doctorate in dental medicine. The black robes we wore on graduation day is a legacy of the same cloth worn by clergy in the Middle Ages. The path to medicine is in fact a journey, a pilgrimage. A medical provider/pilgrim, who is entrusted to heal those in their care, is the merger of sacred and science.
Those pilgrims of old could have stayed in their status quo, not rock the boat of the ruling English elite, or move to Holland that allowed the freedom of religion. Instead they wanted more, their hopes and dreams for something better than their present state. We could have gone down so many different paths, avenues, adventures, but for whatever reasons, opportunities, or influences the world of dentistry was the course we set for our sails.
Just like the pilgrims, we though the grass would be greener, life and work balance easier, and our mental/spiritual would blossom. Those that decided to make that journey to the new world were hit with the brutal reality of failing crops, freezing weather, faminous bellies and funerals of love ones. The dreams of dentistry can seem more like a nightmare with debt, saturation, lower insurance rates, competition, damage to your body, shrinking middle class, COVID-19 and ever more angry patients.
As the pilgrims came to fulfill their personal and spiritual beliefs they were also exposed to mental and spiritual trauma. While we might not be dying of the elements, disease, or malnutrition many of our spirits are crushed. Let’s be honest, Americans and especially the young medical and dental professionals are calling for help with burnout, anxiety, depression, and suicide rates that can be four times the rate of the general population and even twice as high as veterans and armed forces members. In August 2020, the ADA Health Policy Institute conducted a survey on the impact of COVID-19 on dentists under the age of 35. Responses showed that 87% reported experiencing anxiety, 76% reported financial problems and 55% reported experiencing depression. If you are hurting please reach out to someone, especially during this holiday season.
I am sure many of those pilgrims questioned and regretted why they left their familiar homes to a new place that they were told was the promise land. Instead they were tormented with destitute, despair, and death. The fulfillment and hope seemed to crumble into fables and lies. I know of some dentists seeking other jobs and careers outside of dentistry. After the sacrifice to get to this doctorate and new dentists want to leave shows the real challenges this profession faces.
In the autumn of 1621 AD, exactly 400 years ago, the first recorded Thanksgiving took place. After months of hardships and trials, that happy moment must have been a somber moment as well. There were family members whose laughs and smiles would never grace an earthly table, and the survivors still carrying the scars of physical and emotion trauma as they hope for the future.
Even in our best work days, holidays and weekends, we probably can remember those hard days as well, time spent away from loved ones with an ever demanding schedule, the pain in the arms and back, stresses of rising costs, and decreasing wages, the worry of a business or no show that constantly tugging at your mind or even just the mundane of trying to keep a tongue out of the MODBL prep on #18.
To earn a chair on the table of the family of dentistry, the pilgrimage is extensive, laborious, and challenging. It has its blessing, it has its curse. Some of us are excited and glad to be on this table, others may have our regrets and can’t wait to leave and others waiver somewhere in between. But take heart we are still pilgrims drawn to a sacred place seeking wellness to our soul, and each day’s a journey you decide to make. That is something to be thankful for.
*if you don’t have any dentist to talk to about the stresses of our profession, life stresses, etc please feel free to email me at email@example.com.
Dr. 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 in Oregon City, 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.”