by Tri Le, DDS, FAGD
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I did not plan on being a dentist. My undergraduate degree is in studio art, and I only stumbled into dentistry due to the economic reality of being a starving artist.
My dental career began in 1987, following graduation from the University of Texas Dental School in San Antonio, when I moved to Houston to be an associate with two of my classmates. With the savings and loan debacle in the late 1980s, life was not easy. This was in stark contrast to the expectations I held for financial rewards with my newly printed DDS degree. I did think I was going to make a lot of money and drive a BMW right away.
But when reality set in, my wife, Ann, and I had to share an Isuzu pick-up truck with no air conditioner in the sweltering Houston heat. In 1990, I had an opportunity to purchase a small dental practice (900 square feet with three operatories) in Port Arthur, Texas — a city famous for refineries, chemical plants, high cancer rates, and eventually, Hurricane Rita. Doesn't this sound wonderful?
For the next eight years, my life as a dentist was ordinary and routine. As long as the appointment book was filled with patients wanting fillings, extractions, crowns, root canals, dentures, or the occasional veneers and implant restorations, I was content. Over time, my income steadily increased. This allowed my family to realize the American dream of owning a nice house, driving luxury cars with air conditioners, and taking vacations.
Indeed, in retrospect, life was simple because I was still looking for financial stability instead of searching for more meaning and satisfaction through dentistry. I would venture to say that I was ignorant and blind to all the amazing advancements in dentistry.
This suburban American lifestyle almost came to an end in 1997 when I had to undergo lower back surgery for herniated discs. Against my doctor's order, I returned to work two weeks after the surgery. I was depressed and worried about my future, as well as my livelihood.
Thankfully, with my wife's amazing support and assistance, I was able to get my practice back on track. The back surgery was the "wake-up call" that made me look for more meaning — and joy — in dentistry. At the time, my office was located in a diverse, multicultural part of the city. I had a nagging feeling that many of my peers, as well as the sales reps, looked down on me. Yet I was not enough of a forward-thinker to set goals and outline a different future for myself.
I was too blind to realize that I would need to make major changes in order to grow and become happy with the profession. In fact, I was so bored that I had considered quitting dentistry at age 37! Fortunately, the next phase of my career was resuscitated and catalyzed by my wife and the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry.
Ann has always understood me better than I do myself. She knew that I was not happy with what I was doing, and that I needed a solution before the growing dark despair destroyed me and our family. By taking into consideration my undergraduate degree in studio art and my passion for that subject, she knew that if she could find a way to help me rediscover "art" — and integrate the essence of it into dentistry — she would be able to help me. In turn, this would ignite my passion for the profession.
My wife had such a belief in me, and always knew that I had more to offer the profession and the public. As a result of her research, she registered the two of us for the upcoming AACD convention in San Francisco in 1999. She hoped that this meeting would somehow change my outlook toward dentistry.
From the first moment of entering the conference, we could see there was a "positive energy" in the air. At that moment, Ann and I realized we had made the correct decision to fly to San Francisco to be among a group of colleagues full of enthusiasm, passion, and zeal for learning.
During the four days of the convention, we had an opportunity to absorb more knowledge, learn the latest techniques, and be exposed to the highest level of integration of art and dentistry. This was quite a revelation to us at that point.
As a bonus, we had the chance to interact with fellow dentists from all over the world. These dentists were united in a spirit of camaraderie and a common pursuit to create dental art that could change someone's life. It was quite interesting to sit in class between doctors from different countries such as New Zealand and Sweden!
After returning home from the conference, I felt renewed and recharged. I realized that, in order to execute the smile makeover cases that were presented and on display at the convention, I would have to embark on a journey to learn not only clinical skills but also photographic techniques.
It was then that I discovered the magic of the camera — the instrument that has since helped me every day in my practice with case documentation and presentation, as well as delivering the most honest critique of my dentistry. Photography has undoubtedly helped hone my clinical skills by allowing me to study things in detail, as well as showing my accomplishments and my shortcomings.
In fact, photography has become such a serious passion that I have taken many workshops in various photographic disciplines. The camera has become my tool of choice to capture and convey the essence of dental art in articles, the glory of nature, and people and their emotions. For this, I have to thank the AACD for rescuing my life and career by bringing the love of art into a profession that can often be challenging.
Looking back, without the passion for dentistry, I would have thrown in the towel when Hurricane Rita paid my wife and me a visit in Port Arthur in 2005. We had to stuff everything we could into one car and evacuate to Arlington, Texas. While not knowing what to expect upon our return, it was the photographic skills I first learned from that AACD convention in 1999 that helped me stay sane, focus, and write my first article that was published in 2006. While a degree in art may not be well respected, it has paid off and enriched my life and career tremendously. I invite each of you to bring art into your dentistry and life. I have no doubt that such a passion can bring joy into your life because, inside all of us, there is a love for beauty that is innate.
Author's Note: This article developed through a meeting with Dr. Betsy Bakeman at a reception for authors of the Journal of Cosmetic Dentistry, the official publication of the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry in May in New Orleans. It was our first meeting after having corresponded via e-mail numerous times. It was nice to finally meet Dr. Bakeman. As Accreditation Chair, I think her column in the Journal has always been full of hope, care, encouragement, and astute guidance. For many years, I did not think I could write and have articles published in dental journals — much less in Dental Economics®, which I believe has provided doctors in the trenches with priceless ideas to improve practices and livelihoods.
Dr. Tri Le maintains a private practice in Port Arthur, Texas, with emphasis on esthetic, implant, tissue regeneration, and full-mouth reconstruction. He graduated from the University of Texas Dental School in San Antonio in 1987. Dr. Le completed his undergraduate studies at Williams College in Massachusetts with a degree in studio art. In addition, he is also pursuing an MBA and will matriculate in 2009. Reach Dr. Le at (409) 982-7827, [email protected], or visit southeasttexascosmeticdentistry.com.