I’ve been officially retired from dentistry now for 506 days and 14 hours, but who’s counting? It’s hard to believe that just over a year ago, I was still arguably a respected and productive member of working society. Now here I sit on a typical Thursday morning—unshaven, disheveled looking, half-naked with my dog at my feet—typing random essays to people I don’t know and attempting to connect with colleagues I’ve never even met. Like many of you, I never really thought much about retirement while I was working. The months and years invariably sneak up on you, suddenly and sadly without much warning at all.
On a recent trip out of town, I ran into a previous patient who asked me if I missed my work. What should have been a simple answer turned out much more complicated than you might imagine. Sure I miss sticking my fingers into someone else’s mouth every once in a while, but you can bet that there are many other aspects of my previous work life that I simply don’t miss at all. Let me try to explain.
One of the things I DON’T miss are the early morning wake-up calls. In order to complete my morning rituals in time to be the first one at the office, my alarm was always set for the ungodly hour of 4:30 am. Even for an early riser who spent ten years in Uncle Sam’s Army, that takes its toll over the course of several decades. To make up for all those years of early morning exercise, chart reviews and staff huddles, I now restfully roll out of bed each day long after sunrise, casually read the paper over a leisurely breakfast, and head out on my hour long jog with the pooch in tow. When 10:00 rolls around, I’m finally ready to start my day. Score one point for retirement.
Trust me, my day no longer consists of putting out office fires. You know the drill (pun intended). It’s taxing enough spending most of your schedule hunched over the dental chair coning down teeth, but to also be required to address the sphincter tightening surprises that inevitably pop up during the course of a normal dental day could send any competent CEO reaching for the nitrous. Over the years I’ve arrived to a completely flooded office, a bogus law enforcement warrant, psychopathic patients, employee meltdowns, compressor AND suction malfunction, on site burglaries, inner office thermostat wars and the occasional staff mutiny.
As an orthodontist, I survived countless years of the daily afternoon rush where school lets out and your clinic blows up. Combine that with the usual assortment of non-compliant patients, divorced parents who refuse to pay, ambulance chasing attorneys and greedy landlords and you can easily wonder how I survived at all. Oh yeah, did I mention the jaw clenching MSO litigation that dragged on for years? Or how about the time that my business partner invited Dateline NBC in for an interview regarding recycled brackets? What the….?
Even with all that said, the thing I probably miss the least of all is being a slave to my work schedule. For my entire professional life, I danced in 10-15 minute intervals from dental chair to dental chair, controlled by whatever appointment procedure was booked at a particular appointment time. Regardless of what the management consultants and office gurus proclaim, dentists all know that we’re at the mercy of our chairside appointment books. Holiday excursions, family vacations and CE trips are unfailingly arranged with that schedule in mind—redeye flights from New Zealand and Chinese jet lag just normal fallout from the profession we have chosen. Simple errands during normal business hours become virtual impossibilities because we’re all too busy juggling dental chairs and coddling patients.
That’s enough whining about the things I don’t miss—what are some of the things I do miss about working? First and foremost, I do miss the paycheck—Hey, C’mon, I’m just kidding. Dentistry has provided me far more than what a nerdy first generation immigrant growing up in a midwestern city could ever hope to achieve. What I really miss most of all are my patients. There’s something intensely satisfying about seeing one of your patients grow up right before your eyes, self-esteem and confidence blossoming–due directly to the smile you helped create. Or how about the personal pride of seeing one of your own go on to compete in national pageants or successful business careers or even lucrative NBA contracts? I miss the gratification of former patients bringing their children in for treatment and sending their friends to see me for no other reason than knowing that I’ll take good care of them. I miss being able to provide dental care to deployed soldiers overseas, to underserved children denied access to care through no fault of their own, and to adults who after painstakingly providing for their own children, finally have time to seek treatment for themselves. I especially miss the hugs and celebrations on that special day when treatment is complete and those braces come off.
Besides my patients, I also miss the staff members I worked with. The number of loyal, dedicated and hard-working individuals who poured their heart and soul into making our practice successful is long and diverse. Sure there were the occasional cat fights, bad apples and episodes of intense personal drama, but those things happen within every family unit. And that’s exactly how I hope each and every one of our staff viewed themselves—as part of our practice family, bonded together by a common purpose and always having each other’s back. Boy, I do miss that part of work a lot– that honor, privilege and camaraderie of serving together with a winning team, now reluctantly forsaken for the independence inherent in being put out to pasture.
It hasn’t taken me long in my new life to adjust to my newfound freedoms, though. Discounted mid-week airline flights and shoulder season vacation packages are now a regular part of my retirement arsenal. Instead of dancing from chair to chair, I just dance now—period. I’m no longer a slave to my schedule and feel a definite sense of liberation of being able to write and teach and study at my own leisurely pace. I’m able to savor the time together with friends and family who are important to me and to participate in volunteer projects, mission trips and business opportunities I care deeply about. If all that isn’t exciting and fulfilling enough, I’m also able to travel around the country reporting on my favorite sports teams. It’s literally a dream come true and I owe it all to bad teeth and crooked smiles. I feel blessed to have been able to make a difference in people’s lives and you should, too, through your calling as a dentist. It hasn’t always been easy, but as someone who has experienced many of the highs and lows, the exhilaration and heartache, the good and the bad of our noble and esteemed profession, I’m telling you to cherish all the precious moments along the way. One day you’ll probably miss it. Or if you’re retired like me, maybe you won’t.
John Huang is a retired orthodontist from Lexington. He currently writes a weekly sports column for regional media outlets in Kentucky. You can reach him at www.huangswhinings.com.
This blog posting was initially published in the November/December 2016 edition of the Kentucky Dental Association Today Journal. It subsequently appeared in the April 17, 2017 edition of the American Dental Association News national publication.