A Trip Down Memory Lane
The year was 1980, and the place was Augusta, Georgia. It was 35 years ago this May that I learned all my doctoral requirements had been satisfied, and I was cleared to graduate from the Medical College of Georgia School of Dentistry. A few classmates thought our Dean was bluffing about holding them up because of unsatisfied gold filling requirements. Those guys had to stay during the summer and do nothing but pure condensed gold fillings. But like me, about 60 of my 65 classmates were deemed ready to take the Georgia State Dental Board for which we were all preparing in June.
Graduation was a big deal at Medical College of Georgia, as it is in most college towns. I think MCG rented the Augusta Civic Auditorium to have enough space. First, there were some Associate degrees awarded to the radiation techs, dental lab techs, and physical therapy assistants. The vast majority of degrees awarded were Bachelor’s, awarded to nurses, physical therapists, medical lab techs, and dental hygienists. Finally, the PhD, MD, and DMD degrees were awarded to the researchers, physicians, and dentists. Each of us had to walk on stage, shake the President’s hand, and receive our sheepskin. I was quite a prankster at the time, and searched high and low for a hand buzzer to use on the college President. Guess it was fortunate I never found one! Degrees in hand, we medical and dental graduates were ready to take the Georgia State Boards. Without a state license, it was impossible to practice anywhere and actually earn a living!
Few patients realize how difficult the various state dental boards were at that time. In Georgia, applicants had to do resin, amalgam, and cast gold fillings on live patients. We were tested on a lot more procedures in the lab, and had to take a written test on Georgia practice law. My patients faithfully showed up for the Boards, but not everyone’s patients did. A patient not showing for this important appointment may mean the young dentist could not practice for another six months, when the Board was given again. It was not uncommon for us poor dental students to have to pay patients bribes in order to show up for this grueling test.
There were several Board examiners on the clinic floor those two days, and I was lucky enough to get an amiable one. He was building a swimming pool behind his house, and we bantered back and forth about that subject during my work on patients. It kept him in good humor, and our conversation relieved the incredible stress on me that this important exam imparted.
Casting my gold filling in the lab went flawlessly, and all the examiners seemed to like my work. Soon a notification came in the mail that I had passed! I was legal to practice, at least in Georgia. Later, while in the Navy, I took North Carolina’s and Tennessee’s Board for good measure. (I never practiced in either of those states, but still keep my license active in North Carolina, because it was such a hard exam!)
People don’t remember how tough the early 1980s were. We had double digit inflation AND unemployment. Interest rates were approaching 20%! America was in a funk with hostages in Iran. An actor named Ronald Reagan had yet to be elected president. The future looked pretty dim for us new graduates. Hardly any older dentists needed younger associates. The few ones that did, sure didn’t want left-handed graduates like me.
The harsh reality was that almost no place in Georgia could support additional dentists in 1980. Only one county in South Georgia was actually recruiting for a second dentist to serve its population of 10,000 people. With demographics like that, I thought, what could go wrong? (Plenty that I did not realize at the time.) I spent my life savings on a piece of land that was a cantaloupe patch. I still remember going to the county courthouse and registering my new dental license by signature in a huge bound book over 100 years old. Two local banks lent me a good amount of money at high interest to open a new dental practice in the small rural town that was the county seat. Just my luck that year the county had its worst drought in 75 years, and crop failures went with it. 1981 was not much better. After my fledgling business folded, I spent the next seven years of my life trying to get the guts to buy my second practice. That initial business failure was quite the personal defeat for me. But all one can do is keep trying, and eventually success will come.
Well, here it is 35 years after graduation. I have actually treated patients for 38 years of my life. You see, Medical College of Georgia’s Dental School was quite progressive for the time, having us starting to treat patients in the spring of our freshman year. So by 2017, I can claim to have healed fellow humans for 40 years!
My professional life has been quite an adventure, meeting dentists at conferences all over the world, as well as treating indigent patients in Lebanon and Peru. I will have to admit these last years practicing in the beautiful Henry Building sure beat my early days in South Georgia, the Navy, and a couple of Atlanta clinics that will remain nameless.
God willing, I intend to practice for at least 50 years like three dentist-heroes of mine. My wife may not let all those years be full time practice. It is rewarding to relieve human suffering, and put diseased tissues back into healthy condition. Even after thirty five years, having the legal privilege to cut and repair human tissue is an awesome responsibility. I have helped a lot of patients all these years. If you are reading this, you are probably one of them!
Kim Henry, D.M.D.
May 9, 2015