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ADAF announces choice for Hillenbrand fellow

Gig Harbor, Wash.—When Dr. Robert Todd Erickson was named the 2009 ADA Foundation Hillenbrand fellow last month, it was just another unexpected step on a career path that started with oral surgery.

In May 2006 Dr. Erickson was at the top of his game, enjoying a successful oral, maxillofacial and dental implant surgery practice and living out the life he'd always wanted in this suburb of Tacoma.

But when he started tuning out his alarm clock and asking people to repeat themselves, he learned just how quickly careers can change.

Dr. Erickson was diagnosed with permanent, noise-induced sensorineural hearing loss caused by exposure to the pneumatic surgical drills he used throughout his surgical career.

While the condition is minimally perceptible to others, it was devastating for a 45-year-old oral surgeon who regularly relied on his hearing for monitoring patients under general anesthesia. Because there was no treatment or adaptation available, he knew that retirement was the only ethical thing to do.

"It's one thing to retire on your own terms," he said. "It's much more difficult when it's forced on you."

And so the man who had previously been so devoted to his profession—regularly holding study clubs, conducting hands-on forums on implant restoration and mentoring young dentists—tried to figure out how to give back and stay in the game.

An ADA News article alerted him to the search for the 2009 ADA Foundation Hillenbrand fellow. He applied, eventually setting the stage for Act II of his career, when he learned he was chosen for a one-year experience working at ADA Headquarters.

Every two years the ADA chooses a dentist and introduces him/her to potential careers in some of the nonclinical aspects of dentistry, such as dental society affairs, education, research, business, industry, management and others.

Dr. Erickson calls discovering the opportunity to become the Hillenbrand fellow a "life jacket."

"This is like a dream come true. There's so much I want to do," he said. "I really want to give back."

Said Dr. Jane Grover, an ADAF board member and chair of the Hillenbrand Fellowship Review Committee, "It is a pleasure to welcome Dr. Erickson as the 2009-2010 ADAF Hillenbrand Fellow and I look forward to working with him. He brings a great background and enthusiasm to the program."

During his year at the ADA, Dr. Erickson hopes to work on issues such as the systemic manifestations of oral disease and access to care. He is also interested in the Health Screening Program, specifically the occupational health risks of dentistry as they relate to his personal experience. Ultimately he will choose a specific area to focus on, sort of the way a doctoral student picks a thesis.

"I want to keep an open mind. This is a tremendous opportunity," he said. "In this era of health reform, it's important to make sure dentistry is included. It's critical that oral health be maintained and dentists and physicians must work together more."

From the age of 19, Dr. Erickson knew that he wanted to be an oral surgeon. The son of a general dentist, he got a chance to observe an oral surgeon at work in his father's building and was hooked. From that point on, he invested all of his educational efforts and time and money into making that dream a reality.

There was no Plan B, no other option to fall back on.

"This happens to someone else," he said of his first thoughts upon learning he would have to give up practicing.

Dr. Erickson wasn't the only one in his family to lose a career in the blink of an eye. His wife, Anne, who served as his loyal confidant and business manager, also had to find her professional footing again. The family, which includes 16-year-old Luke, is looking forward to getting to know Chicago. Luke, a high school sophomore, is a talented junior golfer who competes on the national level.

"I'm thrilled to have been awarded this fellowship," Dr. Erickson said. "It allows me to move on in a new role while remaining affiliated with the field of dentistry."

The ADA Foundation Hillenbrand Fellowship is named for Dr. Harold Hillenbrand, past ADA executive director from 1946-69, and is awarded every two years and is designed to introduce practicing dentists to potential nonclinical career opportunities in dentistry. The 12-month program comes with a stipend and focuses on nonclinical organizational experience and education and allows fellows to select a special project and area of study.

It provides fellows with and intensive orientation to all ADA agencies and departments, orientation to other organizations serving oral health, a basic orientation to federal and state government agencies playing key roles in oral health, academic courses and project experience.

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