'I'm off to my next journey'
October 08, 2018
Milestone: The Virginia Dental Association held its 100th Mission of Mercy event in July at the University of Virginia at Wise Convocation Center. Since 2000, the VDA's MOM Project, founded by Dr. Terry Dickinson, has provided free dental care to over 70,000 patients, valued at $45.9 million. Photo by Tim Cox
. — Dr. Terry Dickinson remembers sitting with a small group of dental friends during their local dental study club meeting when the facilitator asked each attendee a direct question: "What do you want to do with the rest of your lives?"
The focus of the session was about creating the practice and life of your dreams. But when it was his turn to respond, Dr. Dickinson said, his answer surprised even himself.
"I said, 'I don't want to do clinical dentistry anymore,'" Dr. Dickinson said. "It just came out of my mouth." He had never thought that or discussed it with anyone.
That answer would start a five-year journey to find a new purpose in his life, he said. He found that new purpose in 1999 when he was hired to become executive director of the Virginia Dental Association. The following year, he helped found the first Mission of Mercy Project, which now helps the thousands of underserved patients throughout the country annually.
After 19 years at the Virginia Dental Association, Dr. Dickinson is retiring at the end of 2018.
The VDA announced Sept. 20 that Ryan Dunn, who served as the Virginia Chamber of Commerce's executive vice president for corporate and government affairs, will assume the executive director position in January 2019.
"The VDA has been extremely privileged to be guided by a kind, creative and innovative leader like Terry — it's a legacy we're poised to build upon with our selection of Ryan," said Dr. Benita Miller, VDA president, in a news release. The announcement acknowledged that Mr. Dunn would have big shoes to fill.
Dr. Dickinson came to the Virginia Dental Association after practicing dentistry in Houston for three decades. Serving as VDA executive director has allowed him to gain a broad view of the profession and the outside forces that affect the profession, he said. The VDA leadership also enabled him to make his mission to help the underserved a reality.
His work as founder and director of the Missions of Mercy Project was the main reason he received the 2010 ADA Humanitarian Award, which recognizes dentist members who have distinguished themselves by giving at least 10 years to improving the oral health of underserved populations in the U.S. and abroad.
As part of the MOM project, volunteers provide high-quality dental care for underserved Virginians. The program operates mobile clinics in strategic locations across the state, providing preventive, restorative and surgical dental treatments to more than 4,000 low-income individuals each year. Since 2000, the VDA's MOM Project has provided free dental care to over 70,000 patients, valued at $45.9 million. Dental students also receive a chance to learn and understand the importance of volunteering, he said. And more than two-dozen states have adopted MOM programs of their own.
"I never dreamed MOM would become what it has become today," he said.
In the May issue of the Journal of the American Dental Association, the cover story highlighted research findings that incorporating systematic data collection into Mission of Mercy events could help build lasting solutions such as developing emergency department referral programs that find patients a dental home.
The researchers focused on a MOM event held in 2016 in Jacksonville, Florida. However, the root of the event stems all the way back in 1994 when Dr. Dickinson first said out loud he was ready to move on from practicing clinical dentistry.
One day in 1999, he said, a friend called and told him about a job opening at the Virginia Dental Association.
"He said that I'd be great at it, but I also thought that it's been awhile since I've applied for a job," Dr. Dickinson said. "I talked about it with my wife. I didn't think the VDA would want me, a dentist, as at that time there were very few dentists as executive directors of state dental associations, but they asked me to come for an interview and flew me to Richmond for the interview."
That evening, after returning to Houston, the call came from Dr. Charles Cuttino, offering him the job.
"I said, 'Oh my gosh, really? At that moment I realized my search was now going to be an exciting reality and would create a dramatic change in my life," Dr. Dickinson said, laughing. "I remember sitting behind my new executive director's desk that first week and saying to myself, 'Where are all my patients?' I knew, though, that I was ready for a change and a challenge and would have the opportunity to touch the lives of many people."
Today, Dr. Dickinson said he hopes he has done some good work as executive director and has made a difference. Along with MOM, he said, he has worked to make sure the organization is prepared for the uncertainty and unexpected changes occurring outside and within the profession. He said he is also proud of working with many effective VDA presidents, and has the deepest appreciation for the many friends he has made with his association staff and volunteers.
Dr. Dickinson said he is confident that Mr. Dunn, as the incoming executive director, will share his vision and will continue to help the organization's members succeed.
Rising student debt and finding the opportunities in different dental practice models remain a challenge for organized dentistry, he said.
Dr. Dickinson added that Virginia member dentists took a big hit during the 2008 recession as patients, due to financial constraints, decided to visit their dentists less.
"Instead of every six months, they came once a year. Sometimes, once every two years," he said. "I don't think it has ever come back to what it was. We definitely want to continue to help our members become more successful."
Dr. Dickinson said he knows that he will be continuing his work with the Mission of Mercy, which held its 100th project in July in Virginia. As for other plans after retirement, he said, he is working on an exciting new endeavor that will continue his passion for leadership development and in helping others to find their passion and purpose in life.
"When I came to [the VDA] initially, I was closing a door to clinical practice and opening another one to a new exciting chapter in my life. Now it's time for me to be off to my next journey."