As far back as I can remember I longed to be in the medical profession. My maternal grandfather was a New York physician, Columbia Medical School graduate and an immigrant who managed to accomplish so much despite numerous obstacles. I was always impressed and fascinated by what he accomplished and longed to have the gratification of caring for the health and lives of others.
Although I was born into an upper middle class family, my father, an NYU graduate and aeronautical engineer, let me know that as a female I would not be a candidate for college, but rather technical or vocational school.
So like my grandfather, I too had obstacles. My mother was an angel and tried her best to love and support all three of her children (I being the eldest). My father continued to be overbearing, self- centered and a bit arrogant; probably a bit old-fashioned with shades of his Eastern European up- bringing. I received little praise, support, or even love from him. What I heard was, “Not only don’t you have the temperament for medicine, you also don’t have the patience or even intelligence to make it through all the schooling, so I’m certainly not supporting you and your lofty goals.”
From this point on I kept many of my dreams to myself, although I would occasionally share my thoughts with my mom who would simply smile, neither encouraging nor discouraging me, for she too was under the authoritarian control of my father.
As time passed, I would find my comfort zone in my own little world. I gained a great love for the arts, music, theatre and acting, and I tried out for every production and play that was presented in junior and senior high school. I so loved watching the reaction of the audience and found that seeing people smile and pleasing them was my greatest joy. It was an emotion I didn’t see very often growing up, so this definitely filled a need. My mother never missed a performance and my father proudly announced that he never saw me even once.
Before I could turn around, my classmates and I were starting to research our future upon graduation. By this point I was sure that medical school was not in my future. My father began to prime me. “Debi, college is totally unnecessary for females. It’s much more about vocational/technical schools. You need to be thinking of Katherine Gibbs (a famous secretarial school), for example.” Shorthand and typing? Are you kidding? I’d rather die!
I realized I needed direct gratification, to make a positive difference for others, to make them smile. Am I going to get this typing a corporate letter or taking dictation? My father’s word was the law. I learned this early on based on his fiery temper and bitter tongue. You don’t ever ask him more than once or you will hear a string of horrible negatives that will only make you feel worse. The clock was ticking, and I needed to figure out what my future would be and be accepted by my father.
A girlfriend that I really admired told me that she was planning to go to dental hygiene school. It occurred to me that the role of women in dentistry was very significant. I thought, “This isn’t medical school, but perhaps it will be something that I would enjoy and that my father would approve.” I applied, was accepted and started my journey. Soon after I graduated and began working in a practice, I knew it wasn’t for me. I just didn’t have the emotional makeup to handle it. Practicing hygiene requires causing patients a degree of discomfort. I needed acceptance, not apprehension. After a short career as a hygienist, I ended up going to dental assisting school and, yes, entered into a vocational program just as my father had suggested.
I found a job rather quickly after I graduated from assisting school. It was with a very progressive (for its day) endodontic practice in New York, where I was still living. They contracted a time and motion efficiency expert, whose efforts I found very intriguing. I asked a lot of questions and followed him whenever I had the opportunity.
This was my first taste of “out of the box” thinking, and my creative, artistic instincts were manifested. I would go home at night and jot down thoughts to share with him and surprisingly he didn’t turn me away, but listened and appreciated my suggestions and observations.
It was after one year with this practice that I met my husband and the father of all three of my children. He was a well-educated professional registered pharmacist and research chemist. I thought he would be my answer to everything. My father greatly approved of him. After all, he was successful and well- credentialed, and had a very high work ethic (so much so that he worked seven days a week as we both worked and I raised our three children). He was rarely home and continued to remind me that “he was the main breadwinner,” and had no choice but to work all those hours. I lasted 13 years in this marriage until I finally moved on. I knew life would be tough, but this was not a healthy life for me or my children.
This was the first time in my life that I had to learn how to fly solo—make it for myself and my kids and not let them or myself down. My father gave me a terrible time and told me that I was a fool to give up someone who could have maintained a good life for me and the kids. I did not agree that we would ever have a so-called good life.
I continued to work in the trenches in the clinical area of dentistry, until one day I was asked to fill in at the front desk. I believe this was the cathartic moment in my life and career if I had to pinpoint one. I was able to apply my creative instincts (which I didn’t know I even had) and begin to integrate some of the ideas I shared with our time and motion coach from a few years past. The implementation of these new processes worked really well—so well that my doctor had me share some of my concepts with his friends and their teams.
Fast forward 25 years, when I remarried a man who had lost his wife 10 years prior. He wanted to move to Arizona from New York, and I was more than willing to take my three kids and his two and do it! It just so happened that my brother and his wife lived just where my new husband wanted to move. It all seemed so perfect. What was even more exciting was that we learned of a crown and bridge dental lab for sale right where we were relocating. It was perfect for us since he was a businessman and I had the dental background. It was a failing business, but between his business savvy and my creative expertise we turned the company around in a year. Things were wonderful, until he was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and died in less than a year of his diagnosis.
No more marriage for me! That was until I met the husband that I didn’t know I was looking for all these years. We met on a tennis court and have been playing and working together ever since. He was software developer by trade and the very first person ever to point out to me that I DO have value and I AM a strong force in the industry to which I’ve devoted my entire career. At 53, I found someone who would encourage me to celebrate my strengths. He “convinced” me that I have a lot going for me, that my ability to relate to people and interface with them on a level that they appreciated was a gift. He reminded me of the role I played in the success of the dying dental lab by personally visiting with prospective dentists (which was not a common practice). That was the true catalyst for the lab’s resurgent success.
Having sold the lab shortly prior to my former husband’s death, my current husband prompted me to investigate the possibility of practice coaching, where my experience and talent might be best utilized. I connected with one of the most prominent women in dentistry in Phoenix at the time. She owned a dental consultancy and offered me a position to work with her clients to spread and support the methodology they developed. During this tenure, I was soon reminded of the major challenge that dentists and their teams face when acquiring and retaining effective employees that aligned with their particular culture. I was struck by the woeful lack of structure and systems normally utilized in the hiring process, including how often the legal limits were stretched.
Recognizing a critical need and receiving support from the Phoenix group, I created a business model for dental placement that was so revolutionary that many felt it was a fool’s errand. I started an agency from scratch, and I visited every client practice. I started with the few offices with which I had a previous relationship. I presented my model, which included legally sanctioned materials to support every step of the hiring process, and my approach was so well received.
Word travelled fast, and within the first year, I had over 200 client dentists and had interviewed around 500 applicants. By the time I sold the business after five years, I had 800 clients and had interviewed over 3,000 job seekers.
I then franchised my business model and eventually had eight franchise locations around the country. It had always been my goal to make a mark for women in dentistry, and this was truthfully more than I thought that I would ever accomplish toward this end.
Managing the franchise system required a lot more travel that I was prepared to accommodate, so I sold the system after about five years, whereupon many of my contacts nationally persisted in contacting me to plead for help with their staffing needs.
So for the last several years, I have occupied my time with a combination of providing placement services remotely, advising a few private clients and developing some dental-related practice-optimization software products with varying degrees of success. During these ventures, I was continually exposed to challenges faced by dentists and team members alike.
I conceived my latest (and I feel certain my greatest) endeavor based on my involvement with numerous periodontists and their teams over the last few years. OurPerioTeam is a cloud-based software application that addresses their specific and unique needs and challenges that I feel will transform the way these specialists interact with their referring dentists, their teams and the patients that they share.
In summary, over these many years in our profession, I can honestly say that I’ve reached my “sweet spot” in life and career. I really feel blessed and grateful for the people who have directly and indirectly contributed.