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MyView: I don't belong here

November 20, 2017

By Steve Chan, D.D.S.

Photo of Dr. Steve Chan
Steve Chan, D.D.S.
It was hard getting started. I went to a private school, so I was deeply in debt when I finished.  Doing three more years of post-grad training, seemingly, just delayed finding a job where I could support my family.  

But despite being in a recession where the big industry in town just closed; despite double digit interest rates to borrow money; despite the prospects of getting associateships within a 40-mile radius drying up; and despite intense hostile competition in town for a new dentist, it was time for us to start a practice.

We were starting from scratch. We didn't know anyone in the area. The local dental society seemed like a good place to start meeting people — especially as a new specialist in town.

I looked forward to my first dental society dinner meeting. I came early. I walked into the room. I saw someone that I met recently for lunch. Specialists do that kind of thing. He was pleasant and smiled. Then he turned and continued talking to a group of people he was with.

I wandered around the room a few times. It seemed there weren't too many seats not saved or taken. I found a seat at a back table. I introduced myself. People to the left of me turned and continued their conversation. People to the right were talking about their kids' soccer game.  

I didn't know anyone else in that room. I read those flyers at the table from the vendors sponsoring the dinner again and again. I felt like that room was getting bigger and bigger. Maybe I should just go home. I could be home playing with my kids. I don't belong here.

Maybe if I volunteered with the dental society, I could meet a few people. I volunteered to help for what I found out was an almost dead dental health poster contest. But it was a chance to meet the merchants in the community. I had a lot of time on my hands. It was a chance to meet other dentists for reasons more than Steve Chan trying to get referrals.  

That poster contest caught the attention of some of the leaders of the dental society.  They asked me to serve on the board.

A leadership conference was coming up in the state capitol. But I was starting my practice from scratch. I had to see if I could afford to go. I made $600 that week. I made enough to pay my rent.  

All I would need to make is another $600 to pay my dental assistant. There were two weeks more in the month. I still had to make enough to pay my school and practice loan payments for that month.  

I was going to take a chance and go to this leadership conference.

I would get a chance to meet some important people: people whom I read about. I was going to learn the secrets of leadership.

The headliner speaker came to the podium and opened with, "I don't know why the young people aren't joining us. It can't be the money."

The color just rushed out of my face.  

I was only three years out of my graduate program. There were no dues reductions for new grads back then. The dues were $1,000. They wanted it up front.
My school loan repayment just ramped up. My monthly loan payments now included repayment of the principal as well as the interest. I had two young kids. I couldn't find another associateship. What I owed each month was barely what I made.

I was sinking deeper into the chair. $1,000 in dues was not a big deal for people in that room. I was very, very embarrassed. I'm not even in the same class of people in that room.

I started to get up and leave. Maybe I could go back to the office and wait for a call for a patient to come in. Maybe I should go home. I don't belong here.

I went to my first state House of Delegates meeting. People came from all over the whole state. This would be like going to Congress. There were lofty speeches and eloquent people giving passionate pleas. I wish I could talk like those people.

One night, there was a big gala. People were dressed up. One ticket was more expensive than what my wife and I spent for the both of us when we treated ourselves. No one else from our dental society was going. But here was a chance to meet some famous people. It seemed to be the right thing to do.

It looked like most of the tables were reserved with the names of different dental societies. Other tables had people who were on the same state councils or committees. They were waving at others coming in that room, saving seats for them. They looked like they were old friends.

As the event got started, we looked for our table. We circled around nearly twice. There it was in the very back of the room. The stage seemed miles away. My wife and I sat down.
There were eight other place settings. There were eight other empty seats at that table. We sat there for a very, very long time. No one else came to sit at our table.  This big gala was about to start. The stage was far, far away.

We looked at each other. Maybe we should just go home. We don't belong here.  

The state trustee for our county saw us. You could tell he was pretty important. People kept coming up to him to talk to him. They came to him one right after another. Even the famous people in that room came up to him.

He and his wife came over to our big dark empty table. His wife must have been pretty important. She was the chairperson of something called a reference committee. She was at another table with her committee members near the front stage. People kept coming up to talk to her too.

They left their reserved tables at the front of the ballroom. They left their friends and other famous people in the state. You had to be pretty important to sit in the front of the room.

They came and sat with us.
This was the third turning point in my professional life.  

It was the third time where I almost quit.  

Our path in this profession would have been different.
They reached out and touched our lives. It was a powerful lesson in leadership.

Maybe it's not just about an exhibit hall where you can see rows and rows of the latest new toys for the office and pick up a few freebies.

Maybe it's not just about getting malpractice insurance.

Maybe it's not just about getting continuing education credits.

Maybe it's not just about fighting insurance companies.

Maybe it's not just about standing our ground with the government.

Maybe it's more than that.

Dr. Steve Chan is the immediate past president of the American College of Dentists; past president of the California Dental Association; founder of the CDA Foundation, and past president of the California Society of Pediatric Dentists.