Footsteps in the Sand

Footsteps in the Sand

Larry Squillace, D.D.S.,* Lisa Dau, M.A., CEAP, LP,* and Neal Benjamin, D.D.S.†:


Present, Tense

Anticipation builds as the plane lands on a strip of runway buffeted between lush green hills and the white-capped Atlantic Ocean on January 26, 2008. The colorful buildings of Roatan peek out from greenery while the plane taxis to the island’s only airport. Eagerly grabbing overhead belongings, many of the 23 members in the Blue Parrot Study Group stuff winter jackets into bags and anticipate an entire week away from Minnesota’s sub-zero temperatures.

Stepping off the plane, the warm humid air hits and many smiles emerge as we walk into the airport. After elbow-navigating through the constricting passport area, worried faces appear as the realization emerges that nearly everyone’s luggage is missing. Eventually a hotel representative takes over the scene, promising to collect the missing luggage that was to arrive on a later flight due to the less than half-hour layover in Houston, Texas. With confidence in the representative, we board the bus to Anthony’s Key Resort, where the next week will be spent enjoying the many activities of the resort, but predominantly focusing on the study group’s topic for this trip: transitions.

A Pause to Reflect

While time away in an alternatively beautiful place always sends Minnesotans off to a running start, perhaps we should step back to fill in dreamy readers on the origination of what is after all a study group.

Twenty years ago the Minnesota Chapter of the Academy of General Dentistry had some wonderful leadership in Drs. David Linde, Laan Dommer, and Mark Jurkovich, to name just a few. These forward-thinking individuals saw a group of people who enjoyed spending hours poring over study models, X-rays, and clinical dilemmas. After meeting in basements, conference rooms, and reception areas, it was Laan Dommer’s idea that the president should take the study group on the road. His first venture was Ixtapa, Mexico. The trip was an outstanding success, and was followed the next winter with a week in Cozumel. 

It was in Cozumel that several participants were exposed to another source of recreation: scuba diving. Each year thereafter the challenge was met to find another worthy destination in the Caribbean. It’s actually not that hard: sun, blue ocean, some beach, and don’t forget the continuing education units.

Initially the group was very dedicated to teeth and the immediate surrounding structures. As time went on, however, the group became much more diverse, and the topics also evolved, to areas not typical in dental continuing education. Subjects from the perspective of health and mental fitness began filling the presentation rosters as physicians, physical therapists, and attorneys also joined the study group. 

In searching for a new identification for the study club, a couple of fellows were talking about funny skits and laughed about Monty Python’s infamous Blue Parrot. It was decided quickly that we would be the Blue Parrot Study Club.

It now has been more than 15 years of group travel and study with many activities and adventures. We have been stopped by customs in Grand Cayman for suspicious looking gear (plastic teeth, reamers, warm gutta percha fill equipment); we have donated tents to the Scouts of Bonaire, toothbrushes and toothpaste to different children’s groups, and even sat with an island dentist who wanted to learn rotary instrumentation. On this year’s trip to Roatan, one of our group members spent an extra week helping at their island clinic.

Sideways and Sidewise

It was with the encouragement and persistent advocacy of Neal Benjamin, a dentist member of the group, that the topic of transitions recently went to the top of the Blue Parrot’s list. Neal had been contemplating changes he and some of his friends were experiencing, and he astutely realized that if the transitions and changes people experience aren’t acknowledged or dealt with in healthy ways, they can come out “sideways” and potentially be destructive to the individual as well
as to others.

Timothy Magee, M.D., a psychiatrist with Cambridge Medical Center in Cambridge, Minnesota, volunteered to coordinate the program. He also received help from a new person with the group, Lisa Dau, psychologist and Employee Assistance Counselor from the Sand Creek Group, Ltd., based in Stillwater, Minnesota.‡ Between Tim and Lisa, there was a rich docket of presentations. Among them:

• Retirement: What’s That?
Lisa presented on how the concept of retirement is changing as the Baby Boomer generation approaches this phase in their lives. Retirement is no longer seen as a time of withdrawal or decline, but a time of new meaning, and, for some, an encore career. Much discussion emerged around people looking at how they foresee creating the “next chapters” in their lives in ways that are meaningful not only for them but for society as well.

• Elisabeth Kubler Ross’s Stages of Grief and Loss
Tim lead a conversation on Ross’s observations of the dying process and the five stages she proposes people go through (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) when death or loss is experienced. People readily shared examples of loss they recently experienced and the range of feelings associated with such events. One conclusion from these conversations was that people do not necessarily go through these stages in any particular order. Neal Benjamin shared how as a dentist he sees these emotions in his patients, primarily when they will be going through the life-changing event of getting dentures. In order to help the patient accept the reality of dentures, he strongly recommends they connect to a support group for assistance in navigating the feelings associated with this event in their lives.

• Stress Management
Tim facilitated a conversation based upon Hans Seyle’s assessment tools. The assessments provide a rough idea of how much stress an individual has in his or her life. As well, Tim focused the group on how they are coping with the stresses in their lives. Through discussion, the group identified that a number of its own members were experiencing high stress, but that the most important variable was how healthily people were coping with that stress. It is one thing to have high stress, but a lot of the negative effects can be mitigated by healthy cognitive skills such as reframing, problem solving, and setting limits, as well as correctly managing nutrition, communication, exercise, and so on.

• Dealing with Difficult Behaviors
Lisa discussed how difficult behaviors and situations occur, the difference between the intent and the impact of one’s behaviors, as well as some strategies for addressing difficult behaviors. Individuals in the group also shared some behaviors or communication they do that can come across as difficult to others. The group continued conversations around how addressing difficult behavior can be complicated because the approach one would use is dependent upon the individual’s relationship with the other person, the situation or context, how invested one is in the relationship, how he or she is feeling, and so forth.

     Neal Benjamin read a piece called A Wonderful Message by comedian George Carlin. It catalogs a lot of the paradoxes of our time, such as, “We have more degrees but less sense…” Neal balanced it out by encouraging us to remember that “…Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but the moments that take our breath away.”

• SCUBA Diving in Antarctica
Even though this topic had nothing to do with transitions, Lisa presented on her preparations and diving trip to Antarctica in 2006. She shared photos and a video on the ice diving in Minnesota and shipwreck diving in Lake Superior she did in preparation and also presented slides of her diving experiences above and below the waters of Antarctica.

Deep Water

Without divulging any specifics from this group’s work, suffice it to say the discussion on all topics was amazing. Everyone in the room had something to share. Every person had a life-altering situation he or she was trying to cope with. Some had been trying to cope for some time. Each could be a chapter in a book. (Hey, there’s an idea!)

During this time of exploration, we came together as a group who know each other and know of each other. We started out denying the need for transition help, but every one of us came away thankful for the process, all healthier individuals now capable of being able to better help others. Friends were helping friends. Professionals were helping professionals. We could call this a success.

As for the group, I get to look at our friends in a new way, and I see them “carrying tiny ladders”. Heck, step stools. I think you all can follow the metaphor to the understanding that when I say, “Now that’s a hole we can jump out of,”
I mean it with all my heart. Thanks, Lisa. Thanks, Tim.

And to all my friends on shore, if you’re tired of being in a hole, please call and ask for Lisa Dau at the Sand Creek Group. She’ll show up with her ladder. N


*Dr. Squillace is a semi-retired
general dentist in private practice in Ely, Minnesota.

*Ms. Dau is a psychologist and Employee Assistance Counselor with the Sand Creek Group, Stillwater, Minnesota.

†Dr. Benjamin is a general dentist in private practice in Circle Pines, Minnesota.

‡Please see boxed information on the Sand Creek Group at the end of this article.

The Sand Creek Group provides confidential counseling services for dentists under the Dentist Wellness Program which is collaboration between the Minnesota Dental Association and The Sand Creek Group.

The Dentist Wellness Program is a confidential, no cost, problem-solving service for Minnesota dentists and their families. A professional counselor will provide assessment, referral, and short-term counseling for areas such as stress, financial concerns, relationship or family problems, work or practice difficulties, mental health, drug or alcohol concerns, and parent-child challenges. The number to access services is 651-430-3383 or 1-800-632-7643 and these numbers are answered 24 hours per day, seven days a week.

The Sand Creek Group also coordinates a confidential support group called Dentists Concerned for Dentists. This is a non-profit, confidential support group of dentists in Minnesota who have experienced their own substance abuse and recovery, and now provide assistance and guidance to other dentists, their families and staff around the areas of alcohol and drug issues. The number to contact this program is 651-275-0313 and is answered 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Additional information about these programs can be accessed at the Minnesota Dental Association's webpage: