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Surviving the Peaks and Valleys of Dental School and Beyond

May 1, 2005
The person who originally said, "The only thing constant is change" must have been a professional woman.

WRITTEN BY Laura D. Braswell, DDS

The person who originally said, “The only thing constant is change” must have been a professional woman. Graduate school is difficult and stressful for everyone, no matter what the program. It did seem particularly rough for me in the 1970s when they first began admitting a more diverse population of students. I was so proud to be accepted to the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry on early admission. I felt like I had jumped the highest hurdle of my life. As this article will explain, life is a series of peaks and valleys, including happiness, sadness, achievement, and disappointment, often in rapid succession. The important thing is to realize that this is normal, to plan for it in advance, and expect it to happen. Establish your support system now so that when things go wrong, you have friends, family, and professional back-up. More importantly, have the same network on hand to help celebrate the successes! With help, even the highest obstacles are surmountable.

As we all know, dental school is stressful. I usually felt like I was not getting a quality education if I did not cry in the bathroom at least once a week! While we had many excellent instructors, one particular professor had it in for me and a select group of free-spirited young women. I was called into the dean’s office one day and threatened with expulsion because that faculty member was mortified to spy me skipping in the hall. I explained that while I didn’t know I’d been spotted, I was indeed skipping because I am basically a very happy person. Furthermore, I felt like there was probably a market for “Happy Dentistry” that I planned to tap upon graduation.

Dr. Laura Braswell holds a tiger cub at Zoo Atlanta.
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My buddy, Suzette, and I were shocked to learn at a recent alumni gathering we attended that the professor had recently died. Come to find out, he did not hate us because we were free-spirited; he hated us simply because we were women. We both survived the ordeal, got an excellent education, and are both highly successful with a special focus on “Happy Dentistry.”

The first stop after dental school was a mall dental unit. Dr. Sam Rudd was a faculty member with the foresight to open a dental office in the Sears store of a major shopping mall. I was young and inexperienced, and lucky to spend a year in what was much like a general practice residency with an excellent mentor. I learned a lot about dentistry and unfortunately a lot about overextended credit at major anchors in the mall. Everyone wanted to give a credit card to a young doctor with future earning potential. After only one year, my debt was more than I made. It was time for a change!

My next idea was to try academics. I moved to Atlanta and approached Dr. Michael Fritz, the dean at Emory University School of Dentistry. He finally agreed to give me a job teaching nonsurgical therapy in the undergraduate department of periodontology and running the hygiene recall program. I was making $18,000 a year, which was fine until I found out that the MARTA bus drivers were making $19,000. After 15 years, my salary eventually moved up a bit! Emory was good to me. I was able to teach full-time while completing a four-year residency in periodontics. The most exciting part of my time there was the opportunity to work with Drs. Steven Offenbacher and Thomas Van Dyke. They were always the principal investigators - commonly known as the “PIs” - on our research projects. I was proud to be what I called the “Peon.” Actually they treated me extremely well. I learned a lot about research, pharmacology, the industry, and, of course, university politics.

We were lucky enough to do many trials at Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center at Emory University. These projects included FDA trials on surgical techniques and materials, as well as drug studies for major corporations. While our research animals were predominantly rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta), I became the house dentist for the apes - the chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas that were housed in that facility. When the apes were moved to their new home at the zoo, I was honored to go along with them and become the staff dentist for Zoo Atlanta. I was there to see Drs. Rita McManaman and Terry Maple take Zoo Atlanta from one of the worst zoos in America to one of the top 10. They are especially known for their successful gorilla breeding project, so I have gotten to see several generations of gorilla families raise their children. Of particular interest to me is the incidence of early onset aggressive periodontitis, previously known as juvenile periodontitis. I have observed and documented this genetically inherited disease in gorillas, orangutans, and chimpanzees. My years at Emory and Yerkes were educational, fun, relatively low stress, but unfortunately low pay. My younger brother (the banker) continuously asked me, “When are you going to get a real job?” The good news is that I developed a unique set of skills that have given me the professional foundation for everything I do today.

Just when I thought I had found my niche in life, Emory University announced the closing of its dental school. It wasn’t immediate, but a slow, painful process that took more than four years. Many of the undergraduate students left for other programs. Faculty began to bail out as well, leaving just enough to graduate what became known as the Omega Class in 1988. My position went from undergraduate instructor to graduate instructor, to working in the research center, to a full-time position as an associate scientist at Yerkes. Working with Dr. Michael Fritz, we had a five-year NIH grant to evaluate various implant modalities and bone-regeneration products. As the grant ran its course, I went into private practice with Dr. Fritz in Buckhead. This led to an eventual buy-out, and once again I was in what I perceived as a stable situation.

I quickly settled into my new life as a capitalist. Blue jeans and T-shirts were replaced by Ann Taylor suits. As our buy-out progressed, I took on more responsibility for the business end of the practice and tried to earn the trust and respect of our patients, staff, and referring doctors. Just as I took on the full financial responsibility of the office, the next big bomb hit. They decided to tear down our building. After some research, several dentists, specialists, and I decided to move to the building across the parking lot. The expenses were scary, but we all upgraded our offices and quickly became accustomed to the new space. Our practice continued to grow along with professional friendships in the building and the Buckhead community.

Life was going well again. I enjoyed my professional and personal life and began to lecture, travel, and date. In time I got married and entered the next phase of my life, which included three precious stepdaughters. As a lover of the outdoors, I did everything I could to encourage them to enjoy mountain, woodland, and coastal activities. The oldest, Ashley, was not easily converted. As her friend put it, “Nature is OK, but it’s kind of dirty!” Jeanette and Alison followed along like little wood sprites and continue to appreciate nature and travel. My son, DeFord, was born in 1995, bringing an additional member to our merry band. He was camping and traveling internationally before he could even walk. I had a new office, a new house, and a new baby. What more could a woman want?

They say that God does not give you more than you can handle. So He must think I’m pretty strong! My marriage began to fall apart and after a solid year of crying every night, I decided to get a divorce. This meant moving to a new house and sorting through 10 years of accumulated “stuff” in boxes.

One month later I had a mammogram, and a biopsy detected breast cancer. Luckily, I was able to have the surgery (a lumpectomy) over the Thanksgiving holiday and did not miss a single day of work. My treatment included six weeks of radiation, which left me extremely fatigued. I cannot stress how important my family, friends, and staff were during that time. My brothers and sister showed up to help me move, and my mother cooked enough food to last for months! My friend Paige took me to my appointments and eventually did the 60-mile AVON walk with me. My staff arranged my schedule around three naps each day to maintain profitability. You almost have to look at cancer care as a very important part-time job in addition to your already busy life.

One very important weapon to fight illness and the trauma of divorce was a strong faith in a higher power. My pastor, Dr. Randy Mickler, and my wellness group at Mt. Bethel Methodist Church were critical to my daily existence. They remain a powerful role in my life. If there is a positive side of cancer or any life-threatening illness, it is the very clear focus it gives you to realize what is truly important. For me, it was to spend more time with my children and to stay as healthy as possible. As professional women, we tend to try to do everything ourselves. In times of crisis, we must allow other people to step in and help us.

While cancer was a manageable disease, back trouble literally kicked my butt. When I developed pain which radiated down my leg, I was unable to walk or work for the first time in my life. After trying chiropractic therapy, massage, and acupuncture, I finally found an orthopedist who focused on nonsurgical therapy. After many days of lost income that can never be recouped, I discovered the joys of locum tenens, or temporary dental coverage. I contacted Forest Irons and Associates and eventually joined the company as a regional director and strategic liaison. Since then, I have realized the benefits of temporary office coverage, not only in times of disaster but to plan for fun as well. This is especially important for female solo practitioners who may face pregnancy, illness, or simply need a mental health break. I have personally increased my vacation time from two to six weeks each year, and I realize that the business can go on without me. We all need to recharge our batteries on a regular basis!

Currently, my life is on the highest peak I can remember. My children are healthy and happy, and together we enjoy traveling, camping, deep sea fishing, and skeet-shooting. I am in a great relationship with a wonderful man who keeps me grounded emotionally and is even able to get me to relax! My staff and I have moved to a new office along with several of our dental friends.

Dr. Laura Braswell and her son, DeFord, enjoy skeet-shooting for recreation.
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The office reflects my personality with an animal theme and open feel. I have been lucky to add a part-time associate, Dr. Kaarina Parviainen, who worked with me at Emory more than 20 years ago. She focuses on nonsurgical therapy, which complements our conservative philosophy. Thanks to her, I now have some flexibility to spend time at the zoo or with my family. We are blessed to work with some of the top dentists in Atlanta and enjoy a lot of laser and cosmetic procedures. Most of all, our staff of two hygienists, four assistants, two office administrators, and a dedicated office manager provide personal, caring attention to each of our patients. Our operatories have glass doors that give the illusion of space while, at the same time, provide individual privacy. Our second biggest referral is word of mouth, virtually unheard of in a specialty practice.

Building a new office is stressful, but we believe our new space will help us take Buckhead Periodontics to the next level of success in 2005. We are proud of the way we care for our patients and look forward to the next decade together. Many of us have been together more than 15 years, yet we are adding new team members to the mix. Once again, I am on top of the world! I try to remember the wise words of Dr. Seuss in “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” ...

And when things start to happen,

don’t worry.

Don’t stew.

Just go right along.

You’ll start happening too.

Survival Tools:

Good friendsPositive attitudeSupportive facultyExcellent mentorsAbility to live on a limited budgetFlexibilityLearning to cope with major changeWillingness to reinvent yourselfFaithSupport of friends, family and staffProfessional back-upGreat Referrals, staff, and patientsFamily bondingA supportive relationship

Laura D. Braswell, DDS
Dr. Braswell is a board-certified periodontist and owner of Buckhead Periodontics. She enjoys all aspects of periodontal care, but especially enjoys cosmetically challenging cases. You may contact her at (404) 261-9593 or [email protected].