Dads best lesson

April 1, 1998
The old geezers warn us about our attitude toward our work. It takes a while, but eventually you realize there`s more than a kernel of truth in what they say.

The old geezers warn us about our attitude toward our work. It takes a while, but eventually you realize there`s more than a kernel of truth in what they say.

Arthur L. Labelle, DDS

When we came charging out of dental school in 1962 like Crusaders rushing into battle, we all thought we were magnificent. We were doctors! We laughed among ourselves when old Tommy Abbott, in one of his last lectures to us as seniors, remarked, "You boys are nothing but safe beginners." How foolish, we thought, we`re going to be doctors in just a few weeks.

Whaddaya mean, "safe beginners?" We have all of the latest information and all of the latest techniques. We`ll show the old geezers what it`s all about ... and get rich while we`re at it! All we have to do is fill the holes that everybody will bring to us and we`ll have it made.

One day, about 10 years later, a physician friend said to me from a reclining position in my dental chair: "I`m having a tough time, and it`s going to be hard for me to pay for this dentistry. What happened to us, Art? Are you as well off as you thought you were going to be?" Of course, I was not. I had filled lots and lots of holes, but I was thinking, "Is this all there is?"

Few of my friends expressed any happiness. Are we failures, I thought? By that time, I knew for sure that Tommy Abbott was right ... that we had been bare-bones beginners, barely safe, when we had started out 10 years earlier. And there I was, still reaching for something, still trying to make sense of it all. But I was starting to fade. Excellence was not a word that anyone used very much. Get the job done was more like it.

The way my dad did it!

My old man was a dentist - a darn good one, everyone says. He graduated from dental school in 1926 and practiced without an X-ray machine until about 1932. He repeatedly said during the 1930s and 1940s that "nobody can ever be critical of my sterilizing procedures" as he boiled everything in sight (except the burs, of course, because they would rust). He practiced alone - except for a period of about two years of his 42 years in practice - when Miss Hyde (she had no first name that we ever heard) helped him in his one-room office. There was a lab and the darkroom in one little closet and they shared the reception room.

I have two gold inlays in my two upper-left bicuspids that my father did in 1944, and I have a 90-year-old aunt with a gold crown on #19 that Dad did in 1927. Direct wax patterns, which he invested and cast himself, were inserted with loving care. He used zinc oxyphosphate glue, mixed on a warm glass slab. He did it all himself, from start to finish, taking the time to make all that gold work as magnificently as he could. He took pride in his work and joy in his achievements, including those two gold inlays in my teenage mouth. In those days, I didn`t understand how he could be a good dentist because he hurt me. There wasn`t much anesthetic in those days; you just took the hurting "like a man."

Then, in the late 1960s, he lost interest and confidence and began to hate his profession. Spit, blood, pus, rot and stink he called it, and he quit very soon after that. But even then, the quality of his work never flagged. Everyone said for many years that he had been a really good dentist. But he lost most of his own teeth about 10 years before he retired, so what can we say about his excellence?

When our class graduated, we had some vague idea that the old-timers were "out of touch" and that our teachers were just failures in dental practice. The old-timers at the dental meetings surely were wondering what they were teaching these young fools. Who`s better - the young dentist with the latest stuff or the old-timer with the massive experience?

Remember what dad said

While I was meandering through dental school in a technical fog, learning all of the modern techniques, my Dad used to tell me repeatedly (it was boring to hear it after a while), "My boy, success in dentistry is about 75 percent attitude and 25 percent technique."

"Yeah, yeah, Dad, I know," I would say. But I didn`t know, of course. And now, 35 years after graduation, I`m convinced that Dad was slightly wrong. Success is really about 90 percent attitude and the other 10 percent is a combination of 9 percent technique and 1 percent luck.

In the mid-1970s, a national magazine ran a survey in which 5,000+ people from all walks of life around the U.S. were asked: "Do you like your work?" The response was startling: more than 70 percent answered with a resounding no! The questioner then concluded that this truly showed why we have so much trouble finding quality in American life.

Is it reasonable to think that a survey done today would draw similar responses? Please understand that the question was asked of people from every walk of life, including housewives and wealthy folks. No word on how dentists responded to the survey, but I wonder how it would go even today.

Think about this just briefly: tomorrow morning, you have two new patients in your office who have lots of old crowns. One has a lot of open margins (no caries) and no evidence of any plaque and the other has near-perfect crowns surrounded by thick and smelly plaque. Which of the two would you consider to be the bigger problem?

Love it or leave it!

One of my classmates dropped out of dental practice after 18 months. Didn`t like it, I heard. Two others are internationally known lecturers. Most of the rest of us are still at it, liking it, hating it, tolerating it, lying about our production and collections at dental society meetings, trying to find some decent help and pontificating about the decline of modern health care. Those of us who are left seem to have a love for dentistry: who could stay around all of this time if we didn`t like it?

The secret of success is the same today as it was 50 years ago; nay, the same as it was 4,000 years ago. Like your work; believe in it; put on a good attitude about it. If you don`t like it, you`ll never succeed. It would be better to get out of it and find something else that can bring joy to you.

After all these years of struggle, I now can say that I truly love what I`m doing. But, it took me more than 25 years to understand what my dear old Dad tried to tell me all those many, long years ago. It dawned on me one bright morning some years ago when I received some flowers from a delighted patient. Flowers ... for me? That experience was better than any technical success I ever experienced!

Success in dentistry comes not from the proper use of bonding materials or marvelous-looking endo successes on X-rays or incredibly gorgeous porcelain work; it comes from the excellence of our attitude. The high quality of work must be there, but the attitude must come first.

Excellence really is a core principle. It`s an external attitude. You can`t buy it, but you sure can own it. The cost depends on the owner.

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