An aptitude for science, and a desire to help people and develop long term patient relationships led Caitlin Miller to dentistry. Caitlin talks to us about the commitment needed to get through dental school, the intensity of her residency in the ER and how she deals with patients’ fears.
You were born in New York …
I was, but I mainly grew up in California, and moved back to New York five years ago. I wanted to do my residency program here, which was my last year of training. This allowed me to get my dental license in New York state.
Was it always the plan to come back to New York and work here?
I did my undergraduate at Notre Dame in Indiana, and then went to dental school in Wisconsin. At the time my parents were still living in L.A. and so, I decided between L.A. and New York. Those were the only two places I really considered, as the programs were the best. I interviewed in both places and had a really good feeling about New York.
Let’s go back a bit, how did you get into dentistry? What made you decide to study it?
I’ve always been interested and good at science, so while I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do I started a pre-med undergraduate degree. I also really wanted my career to be focused on working with people, in giving back and helping in some way. Medicine had all of those.
One summer I had the opportunity to study in Mexico for six weeks. We rotated through hospitals around the country and closely followed and worked with different doctors in various fields. It was also where we learned medical Spanish, which helps us translate key medical terminology. I loved being in the hospital but I was also a bit overwhelmed. We saw a lot of different cases, and surgeries. I’d never been exposed to that before.
I was telling my mom about it, and talking to her about feeling overwhelmed and she suggested I spend some time shadowing our family friend who is a dentist. So for the second half of that summer I assisted him at his practice. I really enjoyed it! When I went back to school in the fall I really started thinking seriously about dentistry.
What was it about your time assisting the dentist that you liked?
I liked that there was a variety of things that you would do throughout the day, it wasn’t the same day in and day out, but I also really loved the patient relationships that he had. He was so friendly, and made people feel so at ease. He was also our family dentist, and I knew how good he was. I loved that you could have a patient relationship for people for years, you see people become parents, and then you see and treat their children.
When I went back to school after the summer I also started attending events surrounding dentistry. There was a pre-dental society, and I would go to their functions, meet other people who were interested and that also really clarified things for me. You also have to take an exam to get in and apply to dental schools, so I was studying for that as well and ended up at dental school in Wisconsin.
How many years do you have to study to become a dentist?
I studied four years of college, that was pre-med. You take all your general and science requirements. Then I did four years of dental school which is a combination of general medicine, science and dentistry. It’s also where you start doing lab work, where you practice on mannequins. So many mannequins! You start with simple things like cleanings, and fillings and work from there. After that I completed one year of training in a hospital, where you work in a dental clinic and also in the emergency room.
So that was the year you trained in New York?
Yes. I worked in Jacobi Hospital which is in the Bronx. It's a big trauma hospital, so you see lots of things that you would never see in dental school, and that you don't probably see that often in private practice.
What was it like when you first arrived in New York? It must have been an intense experience arriving here and starting work in the emergency room …
It was exciting and stressful. I was so happy to finish school. Eight years is a long time, I had grown up so much and changed a lot. For the better. I had met so many wonderful people, and was so proud of myself for what I had achieved. I dropped in to New York from Wisconsin, and it was a really joyful time. When I arrived in New York I had two weeks to get settled before I started my residency. There were ten people in my program, and we had all come from different dental schools around the country. It was great that we could all figure it out together.
How was the residency different from medical school?
You are working in an actual hospital. You are learning the complex systems that keep it running. Hospital computer systems are so complicated! Just learning how to admit a patient is a learning curve.
In dental school you’re supervised. You’re performing procedures but you have faculty standing next to you the whole time. Suddenly you have a lot more independence. You’re seeing six to eight patents a day. You learn really quickly.
So you actually treated patients in the hospital?
Yes. There was a dental clinic at the hospital, so we would work there during the day treating patients, and then we would also work in the emergency room and rotate being on call. A lot of times you’d have to come in during the middle of the night when an emergency came in. People would come in who had been in fights, and had their teeth knocked out. There was obviously a lot of things that were much worse than that. We pretty much worked on anything where the jaw and head was affected. Patients who had been shot in the head … there was a lot of trauma.
I never even thought about things like that and dentistry … but of course.
We also treated patients who had head and neck cancers. We witnessed and worked on some truly amazing jaw surgery, and very advanced orthodontic cases. What medicine can do is amazing. When people think of orthodontics you think about braces, but it doesn’t just correct teeth. People are treated for severe bone and skeletal discrepancies. The amount of work that goes into a surgery like that is incredible. We had to see anything that was head and neck trauma. Eye, bone fractures, jaw and neck fractures ...
So anything from the neck up …
Did you know going into your residency what sort of dentistry you wanted to work in?
Initially I thought I only wanted to work with children. And then as time went on I began to want to work in general dentistry. I wanted the variety.
And that’s what you practice now?
Yes. It’s neat. That's one of the great things about dentistry, there's so many different things that you can focus on.
So, what happened after you completed your residency?
So after my residency, I got my dental license and started looking for work. I ended up getting a job at the private practice that I’ve been at now for about four years.
Is it nerve wracking working on your first patient in the ‘real world’?
It was! But it was also really exciting. The practice I work for is owned by two doctors, who couldn’t have been more supportive when I was starting out. Obviously at first, you’re a little tentative because you don’t have anyone watching over you. It’s you making all the decisions. If I ever had a question or needed help I could ask. I’m thankful for that.
How long does it take to get over that fear of like "Am I going to do it wrong?"
I definitely have infinitely more confidence in myself now than I did four years ago. I don't know how quickly it happened. Like with anything, the more you do it, and the more you see positive outcomes, the more confidence you have.
How do you feel about practicing in New York? Do you think you made the right decision coming here?
I really love living here and I love the office that I work in. In a lot of ways, the practice is kind of reflective of living in New York, there's generally a good variety of just about everything.
What's your favorite part about being a dentist?
Meeting different people and becoming friendly with them and following them you know, over the course of four years. I've had a lot of patients who gotten married and started a family or maybe they have gotten big job promotions …
I feel like I have to ask, how do you feel about the fact that a lot of people are terrified of you! [Laughs]
[Laughs] I try to make it as comfortable for people as I can. I explain everything to the patient, and always let them know they can ask questions. I totally understand, I hear it almost every day! I think if you just open up the communication between the patient and myself then most of the people immediately feel more comfortable. I’ve also gotten really good at reading people’s body language. I watch their hands, their feet, their eye. I let them know they can take a break, that I can see and sense if they are uncomfortable.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
It’s cliche, but it you want to explore something, or to do something, you have to do it. Take the first step. There were about a million times that I doubted that I could get my dental degree, or that I could pass yet another exam. Or even just small challenges, like when we were learning to drill teeth, and you have to practice over and over again on these little fake teeth that you could buy from the university. You would buy so many fake teeth and keep burning through them. I knew what I needed to do in my mind, and I just had to make my hands do what was in my mind. But at the end of the day, I put in the work and I got there. And it was so fulfilling. I suppose the advice is … keep at it.
What does New York mean to you?
New York has an energy. It’s my home. I met my husband here, I got my dental license here, I have my friends here. It’s where my roots are now. So many amazing things have happened in this city.