Editorial: Go West, Young Dentist, Go West

Editorial: Go West, Young Dentist, Go West

William E Stein, D.D.S.*:

Burton’s heart beat like a wasp in a jar as the dentist moved across the room, did unseeable things by the sink, and returned with a full hypodermic. A drop of fluid, by some miracle of adhesion, clung trembling to the needle’s tip. Burton opened his mouth while the dentist’s back was still turned. When at last the man pivoted, his instrument tilting up, a tension beneath his mustache indicated surprise and perhaps amusement at finding things in such readiness. “Open a little wider, please,” he said. “Thank you.” The needle moved closer. It was under Burton’s nose and out of focus. “Now, this might hurt a little.” What a kind thing to say! The sharp prick and the consequent slow, filling ache drove Burton’s eyes up, and he saw the tops of the bare willow trees, the frightened white sky, and the black birds. As he watched, one bird joined another on the topmost twig, and then a third joined these two and the twig became radically crescent, and all three birds flapped off to where his eyes could not follow them.
“There,” the dentist sighed, in a zephyr of candy and cloves.

From “Dentistry and Doubt” by John Updike, October 29, 1955



John Updike does raise the literary bar, doesn’t he? He will be missed.

A couple months ago I did my annual stint at the Dental School working with the senior dental students on their Ethics Seminar. I really look forward to this day, as I learn as much from the students as they hopefully learn from me.

Two of my students were in the PASS program, graduates from foreign dental schools who were earning their way to practice in the United States. Both of these women were most impressive, and received the highest grades on the ethics seminar evaluation.

All of the students were within a couple of point’s difference. They all did extremely well. The profession is in good hands thanks to the diligence of the school faculty.

My lone male student was an affable young man from South Dakota. I quizzed him on where he was going to practice after graduation, as I quizzed all of the students in hope I could maybe persuade one to be my partner and buy my wildly successful multi-million dollar (purely marketing talk!) rural Minnesota practice. I attempted to commiserate about how tough things must be in the Dakotas and how he must be quaking in his boots for those poor slobs who are toughing it out on the plains until they can retire with no hope of selling their practices, that sad day when they will turn the key in the lock on their door and with a tear in their eye, be forced to retire to a small hunting shack in Nebraska, all the farther south they could afford.

“Not so, Dr. Stein,” he replied. “I’m going to set up a solo practice in Sioux Falls. I’ve traveled all over the world and even taught English to students in Japan. Sioux Falls is growing by leaps and bounds. There is no recession there because they believe in the fact that if the government will just get out of the way of the people, the people will prosper!”

And may I add that the legislature of South Dakota is not attempting to add a nebulous “mid-level-practitioner” that will somehow magically solve the dental “access” problem.

Thirty seven years ago, when I was about to graduate from dental school, I received a phone call from a dentist in Mott, North Dakota. He was looking for an associate. We were in the midst of one of our January thaws. He asked me, “What’s the temperature there?” I had him: “Why, Doc, it’s 40 degrees!” He replied, “It’s 65 here — Chinook winds, you know. We play golf in January a few days every year.”

Mott is in the North Dakota Badlands. The guy was doing quite well, and offered to pick me up in his private plane and fly Terry and me out for a “look see”.

I turned him down, my heart set on living in the Lake Country of Minnesota, which as you know I did, and I don’t regret it. However, I am vexed mightily by the increasingly socialistic government of “Sweden on the Lakes”, and I am now finding myself casting a longing glance to our wiser cousins to the west. However, our Dakota cousins did endure decades of bleak times. But thanks to their wisdom in eschewing punitive taxation and God’s blessing of natural resources, they are prospering wildly.

What goes around comes around. Can we learn from our western cousins?


*Dr. Stein is Executive Editor of Northwest Dentistry. He is a general dentist in private practice in Aitkin, Minn., AitkinDent@AOL.com.