AB Abera '19

Why teeth? If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me this question, I would be a millionaire. The answer brings me back to middle school. It was the last day before the Christmas holiday and everyone was happy. The day was especially exciting because my eighth-grade class was exchanging secret Santa gifts. I was thrilled when it was my turn, so I swiftly unwrapped my gift, only to find out that it was toothpaste. I was shocked and confused. I quickly realized that the gift had been given to me as a cruel joke, since my teeth had stains ranging from yellow to dark brown, with pits that were highly noticeable. I was hurt by the gift, especially since people often mistakenly assumed that I was either a heavy smoker or had poor oral hygiene.

The condition of my teeth was due to a severe form of dental fluorosis. I developed dental fluorosis as a toddler living in a small region of Ethiopia called Ziway, which at the time had an excessively high level of fluoride in its drinking water. For most of my life, the condition of my teeth greatly affected my self-esteem. I was a happy child, but felt that I couldn't laugh or smile unless I covered my mouth to avoid uncomfortable stares from others. In my early childhood, treatment for this dental condition was unavailable in my country. Only after moving to the U.S. with my family in 2014, did I have the opportunity for a composite veneer treatment, which significantly improved the appearance of my teeth.

My childhood dream of becoming an oral physician finally landed me the opportunity to attend Columbia University College of Dental Medicine (CDM). I chose CDM mainly due to its philosophy that dentistry is an oral health specialty of medicine. CDM is one of just four dental schools in the U.S. that combine dental education with a medical school curriculum. The goal of integrating dental studies with a medical school curriculum is to produce well-rounded oral physicians who have an overall understanding of the relationship between oral health and systemic health. Providing oral care through the lens of systemic health allows oral physicians to offer comprehensive treatment tailored to specific populations and individuals. Hence, I will be spending most of my time over the next 18 months with students from Columbia University's Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Dental school is academically challenging and requires a high level of clinical competency. CDM prepares students to meet this challenge by offering a highly collaborative atmosphere designed to help everyone succeed. In its application process, CDM does a good job of selecting candidates with strong interpersonal skills, a deep passion for the dental field, and a rigorous academic background. Once these students have been selected, CDM promotes a collaborative atmosphere with afully pass/fail curriculum. This pass/fail curriculum allows students to focus on actually learning material, rather than cramming information that they will later forget or sacrificing their mental health and other aspects of their life for a 4.0 GPA that they hope will get them into a good residency program. The curriculum allows students to gain a solid knowledge base that they can apply clinically while collaborating to exchange ideas and skills. Students have time to work on becoming well-rounded dental physicians by implementing academic research, participating in clinical-based community outreach opportunities, and taking part in skills-enhancing dental externship opportunities.

As an oral physician, I want to use every opportunity at CDM to broaden my perspectives and increase my understanding of public health issues. Since oral healthcare has become increasingly costly, many people neglect going to the dentist for a checkup causing gum diseases ranging from mild to severe, or affecting  overall health. As an oral care advocate, I will strive to promote affordable healthcare options for all people, regardless of economic status. My overall goal as a future oral physician is to make a significant difference in people’s lives by restoring and maintaining confident smiles. I recognize the impact of dental health on overall wellbeing and want to provide affordable, compassionate, and meaningful services to patients who may face the challenges and concerns I once faced. On that day I received my secret Santa gift, if you had told me I would become a dentist one day who would change people’s lives, I would not have believed it. Dreams really do come true.

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