How I got to where I am

I didn’t always want to be a dentist.  Then again, what kid does?  In high school I had an interest in math and science, enjoyed tinkering with mechanical devices, and didn’t exactly excel at writing, so I figured a career in engineering was my path.  Then I ran into something called integral calculus and my vision of the future went through an abrupt transformation.  With one year of college under my belt and no clear direction, I was forced to do some soul searching.  I stared at my Apple II E computer and thought back to 6th grade (1980) when my school counselor recommended I take a computer programming class, with the comment “I think computer skills are going to be important in the future.”  By 1988 the computer revolution was well underway.  I had taken several programming classes and discovered my inner tech geek, so I decided to “catch the wave” and see how far I could ride it.

I left the University of Minnesota and enrolled in the Business Computer Information Systems (BCIS) program at St. Cloud State University.  It was a perfect fit, a well-respected information systems program that was far enough from home to avoid the usual distractions yet close enough to head back and get laundry done when needed.  I took to it well enough, managing to get my BS degree three and a half years later and ready to hit the job market in 1991.  As luck would have it the country was still climbing out of a recession and it wasn’t until eleven months later that I finally got my first real job: computer programmer for $21,000 a year.

I instantly despised it.  There were some days when I would show up for work, program all day long, and leave without ever talking to another person the entire day.  Is this really what computer programming was all about in the real world?  Was the mainframe downstairs to become my closest friend in the whole world?  I began to question my career choice once again.  Depressed and with no other good options I decided to tolerate it for as long as necessary, hoping that something better would eventually come my way.

One year later it finally happened, my dream job came knocking!  The father of a good friend of mine ran a small company selling practice management software to dental offices, mainly oral surgeons.  They had a new product that was really taking off and were looking for people to do installation and training, as well as some programming, sales, support, and whatever else needed doing.  One thing I learned about working at a small company is that you need to wear a lot of hats, and that was fine with me.

I came on board in 1992 and quickly took over the role of lead installer and trainer.  The travel took me all over the country, even Puerto Rico.  The money was good and I even earned a bonus for being on the road.  I was in my mid-20’s and it was a major period of growth for me: social skills, management skills, leadership skills, and organizational skills.

Fast forward a few years and I was training at the office of Dr. John McNeill in Farmington, New Mexico.  Dr. McNeill and I hit it off, he let me observe different surgeries and we talked about his journey from dental school to oral surgeon.  I probably came across as very inquisitive, so one day he asked me two simple questions: Did I like science?  Did I like art?  I told him about my original plan to be an engineer, and also about my current hobby of woodworking and carving.  Then he asked me a question that would once again put me on a new career path: Had I ever thought about dental school?  After a long pause I came up with “Uh…”  He explained that’s basically what dentistry is, a blend of science and art.  He suggested I check into it, I might really enjoy it as a career.

And so it began.  I did some research, talked to the right people, and decided that this would be my next, and hopefully final, career change.  The path wouldn’t be easy; I would have to take all the requisite science classes just to be able to apply to dental school.  This amounted to a year and a half of chemistry, biology, biochemistry, organic chemistry, genetics, physics and anatomy, all with no guarantee of getting accepted.  Risky?  Yes, but I knew what I had to do and I posted top grades, thanks in large part to my new organizational skills and self-management ability.

After all the hard work I was admitted to dental school in 1998 at the University of Minnesota.  It was a challenging four years, at times some of the most stressful in my life, but I never looked back and made a lot of good friends along the way.  Upon graduation I was fortunate enough to get accepted to a residency at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center in the oral surgery department.  It was like jumping headfirst into the deep end of the pool: in my first month I saw as many patients as I did in two years of dental school.  It was a period of rapid growth from a clinical standpoint, but some of my most valuable memories were the interactions I was able to have with our veterans, and how the care we were providing was making an impact in their lives.

Moving into private practice I soon realized that I had a skill that was in high demand at the local community clinics.  In other words, there are a lot of people out there with painful dental issues, and I can help them.  I started volunteering regularly at the Union Gospel Mission in St. Paul, and that soon expanded to several mission trips to Uganda, Project Homeless Connect in Minneapolis, St. Paul Dental Connect, Team Smile with the local sports teams, Minnesota Mission of Mercy, and several others.  I’m proud to say that the staff has been excited to join me in many of these volunteer programs.

I’m one of the fortunate ones in that I have a career that I love and skills that I can use to help people.  It is incredibly rewarding to be able to give someone a complete smile makeover, and someone else the pain relief they need to help them make it through the stress of life.

In dental school I was considered a non-traditional student, or a “non-trad,” because I was 28 years old upon starting and 32 upon graduation.  A lot of people said they admired the fact that I could make the sacrifice of a promising career to go back to school in the pursuit of my passion.  I didn’t think much of it, and then I learned about a woman who recently graduated from the U of M dental school at age 60.  In my opinion, that’s something to admire.

Dentistry can be a fantastic career, if you have the interest and the passion for it.  And it’s never too late.

– Patrick McGann, DDS