On February 25, 2010, Northwest Dentistry sat down with MDA president R. Bruce Templeton to talk about his year so far. We found a quietly eloquent, intellectually elegant gentleman who has faced what he calls “his share” of personal challenges and has brought that knowledge and experience, along with his exceptional professional credentials, to the presidency in support of his fellow dental professionals. He is, he tells us,” a careful listener”, and that is a word to the wise. Listen carefully, dear reader, and you will learn from a teacher who has found yet another voice.
NWD: We traditionally begin these interviews with background information from our presidents:where you grew up, what your family was like (any dentists?), your education, and why you decided on dentistry as a career.
Dr. Templeton: I grew up in Canada. I was born in Northern Manitoba, in The Pas, where my father worked for the railroad. He was a machinist and worked in the roundhouse, in Gillam, Manitoba, where there was no hospital, so my mother came down to The Pas by train a month before I was born. I was the only white child in the hospital - all the rest were Cree. At a young age, we moved to Winnipeg, where Dad was with the Canadian National Railway, and when I was in seventh grade we moved to Montreal, where I had a wonderful opportunity to learn another language and culture. I went to college in Montreal, then back to Winnipeg for undergraduate university and dental school at the University of Manitoba.
NWD: You don’t have either a Canadian or a French accent.
Dr. Templeton: [laughs] I trained myself not to say “eh”. But I am told I do have a northern Minnesota accent. I’ve been here since 1983.
Growing up I had the prairie, then “out east”, two very different cultures, and I learned so many different things. My mom was just great. An elementary school teacher with lots of energy, she exposed us to such a variety of things; we had people over often. My dad worked hard, and worked a lot. I am the eldest of four: two brothers and a sister. Both brothers are professional engineers; my sister is a nurse. In fact, we are the first university trained people in our family, so there are no dentists. Dad’s family were railroaders all the way back to Scotland, and Mom’s were emigrant farmers from the Ukraine on the prairies in Saskatchewan. She taught in a one-room schoolhouse. So I wasn’t really exposed to health care professionals other than the people who took care of us. Among them, it was my dentist I really admired. He was a great fellow, he helped people a lot, so I thought dentistry was what I would be interested in, and I went right into it.
I became a dentist at a rather young age. It took only a couple of years of university; back then you could do that. In retrospect I think it’s better now when people take more time to become more well rounded first ... Anyway, it was in the 70s that the dean of the U of M — University of Manitoba — took me up to the Arctic Circle with him to do dentistry for the Inuit people. It was an outreach program, and it really just got under my skin, so after I graduated, I did a year’s internship (same as our General Practice Residency) in the dentistry department of the Winnipeg General Hospital, and I decided then to be the resident dentist in Churchill, which is right on Hudson Bay where National Geographic does their polar bear series. The treeline ends just south of Churchill, and from there it’s barren land for more than 300 miles to the Arctic Circle. My area included all the Inuit communities through the Central Arctic region. I had two senior dental students and a senior dental hygiene student with me at all times, and I got to teach, for two and a half years! I really enjoyed that. There was a dental clinic in Churchill, fully equipped and with its own operating room. I did a lot of children’s care, especially early childhood caries treatment. I also went to the communities. We had portable units. I would set up in a school or nursing station for a week - longer if it snowed. There is no highway into Churchill; only air or rail. But I did some dog sledding, snowmobiling, fishing, and enjoyed the out of doors and the community.
I came to Minnesota to do my oral surgery training after that. So I “came south”.
NWD: Dentistry is a challenging field to begin with, but the change now is not only constant, but often rapid and tumultuous. Add that to challenges we face in our personal lives, and it can be overwhelming. What grounds you so you can deal with all this?
Dr. Templeton: My faith and my family are really important to me, and that’s what keeps me grounded going through all the challenges and changes with dentistry and health care. I have a wonderful wife, Laura-Gail, who is a dentist but not practicing currently. She has also taught at the U of M. We have three wonderful children, Grant, Kristen, and Erin, who are 24, 22, and 20. And then there is my involvement with Rotary. My former senior partner, Bill Dresser, a fine man, introduced me to Rotary. Its four-way test means a lot to me. It is: In all the things we say and do, (1) Is it the truth? (2) Is it fair to all concerned? (3) Will it build good will and better friendships? And (4) Will it be beneficial to all concerned? If we put that to everything we say and do, I think it makes a big difference.
NWD: What have you been through that gave you those tools, or gave you confidence in those tools?
Dr. Templeton: I have had five spine surgeries and a cerebral aneurysm. I am really blessed to be alive and upright and able to do things. The aneurysm I wasn’t really supposed to survive, or if I did, I was supposed to be quite disabled. I came through it beautifully. So it has just been a whole new second chance for me. It’s a bonus every day. The five spine surgeries gave me a tenacity to keep on moving on. I have not been a stranger to pain and problems, but that just made me stronger and more committed. I never stopped; even when I couldn’t be doing surgery, I was always doing something: TMJ or pain consults ... I just always wanted to do this work and continue to do it. But I couldn’t have gone through all that without my family. I had the private practice of oral surgery taken away from me. I couldn’t do it anymore. But that was when I made the discovery that that wasn’t the end of the world I thought it should be, but a whole new start. I’m at the Veterans Administration now, taking care of people who have served and sacrificed for our country; I get to teach young people, which I just love; and I get to administrate - not my favorite, but I’m learning. And when I see patients in pain, I now genuinely understand.
It was the VA who came to me, actually. I had no idea what to do when my spine surgeon said, “That’s it, Bruce.” I was teaching at the U when they called, and they accommodated me. I put in lots of hours, but I have the most wonderful residents and staff.
NWD: What do you think is especially needed now, perhaps “now more than ever”? What I’m seeing in you, for instance, is someone who teaches and models empathy for technically skilled students ...
Dr. Templeton: That’s something Dr. Dan Waite taught me. All day every day I have a piece of his teaching about care and caring for patients in me. We have to think that way. As well, we really have to be thinking outside the box nowadays. We have a whole new paradigm for dentistry/medicine/health care. We have to be thinking forward.
NWD: How would you describe where you are now in your practice life?
Dr. Templeton: I am at this whole new career: veterans affairs/teaching/ administration. I started part-time in January 2002, right after 9-11. In fact, my first day, they wouldn’t let me in because I didn’t have an ID badge; but one of the young dentists vouched for me. Service at the VA is multifaceted - the teaching; the patients are wonderful; and learning about administration has helped me at the MDA! In private practice you tend to stay in what you prefer or do best. This has pushed me to new things, and you see I never want to stop working! I am also on the board of the NC Little Hospice, and this has been a tremendous experience. I have had to learn to face dealing with my own helplessness as the person who is there to help ... The end of life experience there is as it should be, caring for the patient and the family.
NWD: How did you begin in organized dentistry? What has it come to mean to you over the years? How did that bring you to the presidency?
Dr. Templeton: I joined my first “M”DA after school in Manitoba. Being the only dentist in my geographic area, it meant so much to fly down for meetings and meet colleagues, people who were making a difference. I promised myself to be as involved as I could, and that was a stretch, literally. But the worth of it was evident.
Here in Minnesota Bill Dresser was my great example for civic duty. This group — Gus Stoesz, Bill Dresser, Frank Stickel, David Benson — taught me surgery, professionalism, civic duty, and so it became a natural thing. When I joined the Minneapolis District, it was “big town” organized dentistry. It started with the Midwinter Meeting. That’s a big starting place for a lot of people. Then it was committee member, delegate, district chair, with mentors along the way. Then came the medical “hiatus” from organized dentistry (1996 through 2006). People kept in touch: Pat Foy, Jim Zenk, Dick Wiberg, Jamie Sledd, Todd Tsuchiya, Mike Kurkowski - so many who helped, mentored, and encouraged me on this journey. And my new colleagues: Mikes Flynn and Zakula, Tim Flor. We have all come from different backgrounds, but that’s the fun of it. We’re diverse.
NWD: They say “There’s no such thing as ‘a job for life’ now”, but dentistry looks like the exception. What does this kind of commitment bring with it, both as benefit and responsibility?
Dr. Templeton: As dentists, there will never be a time we are not needed, even as that evolves as in my case from the young energetic trauma surgeon to the teacher/administrator. In teaching, for instance, by definition you have to stay current. That’s a good challenge. The joy of being in health care is that we will always have something to give someone.
NWD: Once you were on the officers’ ladder, what did you have to learn that was outside your own practice or life experience, or at least your comfort zone?
Dr. Templeton: The political system! The legislative system. I’m very pragmatic. To me this “process” is counterintuitive ... it has a convoluted way of coming to the end result. It’s just the way the system is. I have found the whole thing way outside my comfort zone. I rely heavily on our Legislative Committee, the MDA lobbyists, Dick Diercks, and our politically active members. But it has been my biggest challenge. When you legislate something for someone else to do, I think you should put those people across the table from you and organize it together. This whole decrease of the benefit set and the critical access provider and the availability of our dentists to care for patients is so difficult. I started my career with access issues for underserved people. I know these populations, and they need all the help they can get. It is really hard when dentists who want to help can’t because of governmental rules and edicts. Right now the legislature is in a short session and there is no money, but we have to keep our information in front of them.
NWD: How has your personality fit, or not fit, the office?
Dr. Templeton: I think it does fit. I consider myself a mediator/convener/ educator, getting people to discuss
things and feel they are understood.
NWD: What are your own areas of special interest within the Association agenda?
Dr. Templeton: The diversity of our association means a lot to me. We have divided what was a huge committee into four new ones: children’s health care; urban safety net; rural; and elderly and special needs adult care. I am so excited that these people who are so enthusiastic and committed to each of these areas are on the committees. This just started last fall, and we already have initiatives these committees have put into motion and have taken place, such as the campaign to educate all interested individuals about the program cuts for public program patients and how much our members help this population daily, early childhood caries prevention, rural dental needs, and nursing home dental caries. Each of these committees has a focus, and they have embraced their missions and they run with them.
I’m excited because this is building our diversity. The MDA is much more diverse than it might seem on the outside. Safety net clinic dentists are members, people who run these clinics are members. The MDA is all of us, and I am enthusiastic about bringing us all together and letting them know they are important. And I have to say the “presidential viewpoint” when looking at our committees really has let me see this, and how important it is to continue to develop it. Each one of our committees is populated with dedicated, interested, motivated members who are making a difference daily.
NWD: What were the four years on the ladder like?
Dr. Templeton: All of my predecessors were individuals, all different, and all made a difference. And each of them made the commitment to be accessible so that the work was never interrupted. Add to that the excellence of the MDA staff. We couldn’t do a thing without them: excellent skills, encouragement, organization, and they are willing to help always. There’s a synergy to that. We have made a priority to include the districts more, especially the Executive Directors of the Minneapolis and Saint Paul Districts, to communicate and
work well together.
NWD: Let’s talk about Association issues, initiatives, activities, programs, and agenda at mid-point in your year.
Dr. Templeton: We have a lot of initiatives ongoing now. For the legislative session: third party issues from our members; cuts in state public programs and all the sequellae; from the House of Delegates, the Good Samaritan law for entities; the ongoing advocacy to use the 2% Provider Tax for dental care ... The Marketplace Committee has worked hard on third party issues as directed from the House of Delegates. We have a Dental Therapist Task Force advising us as this process continues. The Minnesota Dental Foundation, our philanthropic arm, has more money than it has had in a long time, managed by a great committee allocating funds. And the Evidence-Based Dentistry Task Force is teaching us new ways to work and to be educated. We have been meeting with the Minnesota Medical Association, Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians, and Minnesota Academy of Pediatrics to collaborate on taking care of children and patients who are in need. Two meetings already have produced ideas for pilot programs with systems designs to help take care of patients in need. We also have excellent feedback on and leadership of Midwest Dental Benefits.
I really do not have the space here to mention all of our committees. That is a shame, because each and every one of them, new and established, makes the backbone of the MDA, in my opinion.
NWD: What comes after the presidency for you?
Dr. Templeton: I’m going to get back to my Rotary Club. I wasn’t a traveler as some Rotarians are; there’s always plenty to do here for me. I guess you could say my “hobby” has been my own dental outreach ... I do enjoy giving talks and seminars when invited.
NWD: In closing, what would you like to tell the MDA’s members?
Dr. Templeton: I thank everyone I have been involved with on this journey - each has added something: staff, dentists, volunteers; the people who got me started and then by example taught me how and why to continue. I always want to encourage people to do this. People say they’re so busy ... I say everyone has always been busy. But if you don’t participate, you miss out - on friendships, on laughs, on having your voice heard - and then time’s gone. The people I have seen who have stayed involved give and get so much. I just did Dental Day at the Capitol. Can you imagine if we had a thousand dentists show up for that? That’s involvement for one day, but what a statement that would make! There is so much out there, so many people to meet. At the MDA we have a commitment to respecting people’s time, and we work very hard to use the technology of social networking to do that. So I can say without caveat: Get involved; stay involved. You won’t be sorry you did