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Fear, fast food, and passion: Making the leap from associate dentist to practice owner

May 15, 2015
Overcoming fear and going out on her own: Dr. Walker discovers her dental path.

Discovering my dental path

It was Saturday night, 10 minutes from 11 p.m. I only had 10 more minutes until complete darkness. Under normal circumstances, that would have been just perfect for me: a Saturday night at home with my husband, Ash, and two cats, relaxed and ready to cozy down for some wondrous shut-eye. But this night was different, with different having been the norm for several months.

I was not at home, and I was certainly not relaxed. The pressure was palpable. I was intensely focused. I had been working on a patient, and I only had 10 minutes to complete a third-molar extraction, No. 16, before all the lights in the practice would be shut off. The lights were set on a timer, and I had no access to it to control them. If the lights were to go off during the procedure, my plan was to use my loupe light and ask my assistant to use my iPhone's flashlight app. I never trained like this in dental school.

Fortunately, the worst-case scenario did not happen, as the tooth slid out with only five minutes remaining before lights out. I reflected on my busy day as I walked to my car after 11 p.m. My shift had begun at 7 a.m. that morning, and I had been going nonstop with only a 15-minute break for lunch. After my short lunch break had ended, I had arrived back in the clinical hallway to find eight emergency patients waiting in chairs. It was chaos, volume overload, and stressful, considering I was the only provider on duty that day.

My car was parked adjacent to a Sonic restaurant. Before cranking the ignition to make the drive home, I remember having seen Sonic workers across the street get into their vehicles as their shifts ended. I saw them laughing and joking, and they seemed so carefree. Those emotions were missing from what was then my current job. For a moment, I secretly wished I could work at the Sonic across the street and have a job in fast food. The work environment seemed more joyful and stress free, as mirrored by the bubbly Sonic employees leaving from their shift. Something was seriously wrong. This was not the dental career I had envisioned.

RELATED: Becoming the Ninja Dentist

I was trying to do surgery with a lights-out timer for patients who were scared and in pain. I was completely exhausted since I had begun work at 7 a.m. The brief thought of quitting dentistry and working at Sonic, ridiculous as it reads, made me realize that I could not tolerate the conditions of my job any longer. I realized, at that moment, that I had to build a better work environment in order to rediscover my passion for dentistry. As I turned the key to crank the ignition, I decided to make the leap from being an associate to owning a practice.

The path to building my dental practice was never a straight, clear path. Actually, the path was quite rocky at times. It was one of the most challenging things I have done in my professional life. However, it was also doable. Looking back, I can see that some key steps helped me to transition from being an unhappy, beaten-down associate to a dentist who reclaimed her dental passion and joy. However, the catalyst to initiating this transformation was discovering that I was my main obstacle; my fear was holding me back.

If you read my previous article in Dental Economics, "Becoming the ninja dentist," it might be easy for you to conclude that I am fearless. That couldn't be further from the truth. I had never been in charge of a business before, nor had I thought about owning one. The raw truth is that I lacked confidence, and my lack of confidence led to fear. Fear can be paralyzing, and fear almost prevented me from pursuing my vision for building my own practice.

I initially began looking at practices in my area, owned by dentists who were soon to retire. I chose this route because I felt it minimized risks, as the then-current providers had already established the practices in the community. That was, at least, what I told myself. The brutal, undeniable truth was that I was scared. I was scared that I didn't know enough and that I would fail. I ignored my fear for many months into the process of becoming a practice owner. I entertained purchase proposals but had one resounding thought that I could not shake: If I were to purchase one of these older practices, it would not align with my vision for the practice I wanted to provide my community. Those practices had worked for their owners, but they would not "fit" my vision, even with remodeling.

A few months elapsed since I'd had my late-night, practice-ownership epiphany. I had made my plans known to some banks that were interested in providing financing. By this point, I was frustrated with the process. None of the practices for sale were ideal for my vision, yet I still lacked confidence and quickly dismissed thoughts of starting from scratch. I knew, deep down, that I needed to open my own practice and forgo purchasing an established one, but fear paralyzed me from acting. One day, as I sat in a restaurant with a banking representative, she asked me something that totally helped me break the shackles of fear. Her question was simple: "Why don't you just open your own practice?"

I don't know what it was about that question, but I felt rejuvenated with purpose. At that moment, I knew what I was going to do. I was no longer going to allow fear to pervert my goal of creating my ideal dental practice. I was good enough to be a practice owner, and I knew that I would have people to help me along the way. I conquered my fear and doubt, replacing them with action. My passion was in the driver's seat. I realized that life is too short not to wholeheartedly pursue my vision. Thus, the process of creating Lumber River Dental began.

My hope is that my story will help inspire others who might be in situations similar to the one I was in a few years ago. Don't allow fear to rob you of your dental passion and joy. You are capable. You are good enough. Passion always trumps fear.

Desirée Walker, DDS, is a general dentist and owner of her start-up practice, Lumber River Dental, in Lumberton, N.C. Outside of her dental practice and "ninja" training (for her next appearance on "American Ninja Warrior") she is a fitness coach and motivational speaker for other dental professionals. She can be contacted at [email protected].

Also by Dr. Walker: Becoming the Ninja Dentist

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