S1 E2: Sticky situations, part 1

Awkward moments in the dental operatory often turn into great learning experiences.

ADA Dental Sound Bites - Sticky Situations: Tales from the Operatory - Guest Dr. Kirthi Tata

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Episode notes

If you’re a dentist (or dental student), you’ve had these moments too

Every dentist has tales of difficult, confusing or downright weird situations. Special guest Dr. Kirthi Tata talks with our hosts about sticky situations she’s encountered, the solutions that got her through and lessons learned.

As Dr. Tata relates: “I feel like maybe five years is the mark where you start learning little tricks and tips. Someone told me something that stuck with me: if it hasn't happened to you yet, you haven't been practicing long enough!”

Dr. Kirthi Tata head shot
Dr. Kirthi Tata 

Show notes

  • Today’s guest, Dr. Kirthi Tata, is an early career dentist practicing family dentistry in Arnold, Missouri. Tata had her fair share of sticky situations as a dental student and since graduating five years ago. She shares some of her experiences and explains why she thinks it's good for dentists to discuss the not-so-typical scenarios they encounter with patients.
  • Dr. Wright kicks off the conversation with a memory from dental school that has stuck with her. She decided to challenge a professor with a tough reputation over a point missed on a quiz. She was sure the professor “was out to get her,” and after approaching him realized she was in the wrong and had in fact missed information and deserved the missed point.
  • She was upset about the situation and another professor helped “center” her by reminding her that no one was out to get her, everyone wanted her to succeed, saying: “Your whole entire career is not going to fall apart based off of this one quiz.”
  • Realizing that you can't nail every single thing you try is important, Wright says. She still feels like she made a fool of herself during the situation but now can look back and laugh.
  • Tata says she also had to learn not to sweat the small stuff in dental school, even though she was voted “most likely to need a Xanax in the middle of clinic.”
  • As a practicing dentist, she has faced many sticky situations and one in particular sticks out, involving an anxious teenage patient.
  • To help ease the patient’s anxiety she offered to act like a racecar announcer and served as a “commentator” during an hour and a half appointment that involved all four quads and multiple fillings.
  • “Any time I would stop commentating or commenting … talking this scenario out, immediately, panic settled (in the patient),” she says.
  • Talking about patient management and the things some dentists do to keep their patients happy isn’t always discussed in dental school or at professional development events, Tata says.
  • She hopes sharing her story will get the conversation started and more dentists will come on the podcast and share their tales of awkward situations and make people in the profession feel less alone.
View episode transcript


Wright [00:00:00] Hello. Hello, everyone. I'm Dr. Wright.

Hanlon [00:00:02] And I'm Dr. Hanlon.

Wright [00:00:03] And we want to welcome you to dental sound bites. This is an ADA podcast where dentists address solutions to challenges in both life and work.

Announcer [00:00:14] From the American Dental Association. This is Dental Sound Bites. Created for dentists by dentists. Ready? Let's dive right into real talk on dentistry's daily wins and sticky situations.

Learning from sticky situations

Wright [00:00:30] So, to all of our listeners out there, sometimes things do not go as planned. We all know that. But these things present great opportunities for us to learn. For us to grow. For us to get some experience in the process. So, today we're going to be talking about some sticky, sticky situations that happen during practice, maybe during dental school, all throughout the field of dentistry. And we're going to give you some solutions to the things that got us through some of those situations.

Hanlon [00:00:59] For our conversation today, please welcome Dr. Kirthi Tata. Welcome to the show.

Tata [00:01:05] Hi. Thanks for having me.

Hanlon [00:01:06] Is it true that you inspired a lot of the episodes that we're putting together for Dental Sound Bites?

Tata [00:01:14] So, I'm really excited about this episode because, you know, we all have those days that we finish them and go in our office and are like, "What the heck just happened?" Or "Did that just happen?" And you know, dentistry is always one of those things. It's like you think, "Oh, is it just me?" And then you talk to people and realize that, nope, it happens to everyone. So, I figured it would be a good, good topic, a good episode to have just to hear some of the crazy and kooky things that have occurred to all of us and have us feel a little bit more, you know, not alone. And that everyone has these experiences.

Wright [00:01:51] Yeah.

Hanlon [00:01:52] Absolutely. So tell us a little bit about your background and how you ended up getting here.

Tata [00:01:57] So I went to dental school at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, graduated in 2017, went to Oklahoma for a year for a GPR residency. And then I moved back to Saint Louis. And I've been here ever since.

Wright [00:02:12] That's awesome.

Announcer [00:02:18] Announcing the new. Wait. This calls for a drum roll. Perfect. Announcing the newly reimagined ADA member app. Designed for dentists by dentists. It puts ADA membership in the palm of your hands with features like a personalized news feed, member chat groups, personal document storage, even episode exclusives from Dental Sound Bites. The new ADA podcast tap into all the possibilities by searching for an ADA member app in your App Store.

Hanlon [00:02:56] I think we have some big sticky situations coming up there. Dr. Wright. Yeah. Why don't you go ahead and start sharing your story with the audience.

Dental school disputes

Wright [00:03:05] This is actually an embarrassing moment that I had in dental school, but it's something that I feel would benefit all of our listeners. When I was in dental school. You start off, you know, we all chat with upperclassmen. And so there was always certain professors that people would be like, "Okay, you got to make sure that you're on top of your game because this professor tries to get you and things like that." And so for me, there was one particular question on a certain quiz that I thought that I should have gotten right. So I was like, no, no, no, I'm going to totally dispute this. I totally want to speak to the professor, see where I went wrong and if I can get that one point back. So I booked an appointment, made in office hours with the particular professor and it kind of went okay. But then I spoke to another professor afterwards and I started explaining how I'm like, "I know that this professor is out to get me." And I literally made a complete fool of myself in that moment because the professor wasn't out to get me. They were just trying to explain that there was a part that I actually missed. I learned this from the words of the second professor that I discussed the whole situation with the professor kind of just like centered me and was like, listen, she's like, "ArNelle, no, it is too early for this. You just got started. Like your whole entire career is not going to fall apart based off of this one quiz." She taught me how to learn to just kind of go back to the drawing board, understand that you can't nail every single thing even though we try. And it's awesome that I made that attempt.

Tata [00:04:34] Yeah,.

Wright [00:04:34] But the, the main thing is to realize that it was too early in the game, I guess, of dental school too, to be disputing just one point. And so that's my sticky situation from a dental student's perspective. And I got through that, not that I stopped trying in dental school to, you know, excel and overachieve and be amazing at every little thing. But I stopped looking at it as like, "Oh, this professor is trying to do this thing to me." Because they all wanted me to succeed. And so here I am. And that's just a sticky situation for a dental student, and I hope that someone listening can relate to it.

Hanlon [00:05:11] So I think a lot about emotional intelligence, right? And I think about how when you're young and you're a first year dental student, how much you grow between first year and fourth year.

Wright [00:05:23] Absolutely.

Hanlon [00:05:24] So when you reflect back.

Wright [00:05:27] Mm hmm.

Hanlon [00:05:27] Was that moment a real. It sounds as if it was a huge learning moment for you.

Wright [00:05:35] It was. It was. Yeah. I learned a few things. Number one, not to just listen to what every single thing that everybody says and then not to just, you know, act on it just on a whim like I was just so like in the moment. I just wanted that one point back. I just want it to, you know, win that thing and say, no, no, no, no, no. I just kind of want to go to bat for what I believed in, which is good. And I, I still encourage people to, you know, go after what they believe in. But I do believe there's a way in which things should happen in a way in which you should approach certain things. And I totally just went about it the wrong way. And now when I even, you know, I'm five years out, whenever I connect with that former professor, when I returned back to the university, we kind of chuckle a little bit and it's kind of like this little unspoken thing that we both know. You know, it's like ahhhh. You know, you were just kind of fighting about some little point. But I really did learn just not to be, you know, just easily influenced, you know, really to even put in more work, you know, and understand questions. There's so many things that I feel like I can get out of that particular scenario.

Tata [00:06:46] So funny enough, my class is fourth year. You give out these awards. I got voted most likely to need a Xanax in the middle of clinic. And I think of that and I look back and you know, it's funny because looking back, I'm five years out as well. You know what the worries we had as first years and the worries you had as fourth year and now there's so different, just wait like two years and your your battles that you have are so different. And I look back and I chuckle at the fact that I was voted that because, you know, that one point, my first year would have drove me crazy. But now, you know, my what drives me crazy is when insurance needs, like a third narrative of why I need to, you know, replace a front, to the same day I extract it. You know, it's, it's such different battles that we have. And. Right. You said, Dr. Hanlon, you know, the, the emotional maturity and growth is, it's, it's interesting.

Don’t sweat the small stuff

Hanlon [00:07:48] Uh-huh, you know, I find that even working with students today that the worry hat goes on immediately. Right. Instant. And I don't know if you guys have experienced this, but. I see escalation and I see the meltdowns occurring right in front of my eyes. And I think to myself, "Oh my gosh, you're getting so upset and so worried about such a mundane thing today." But in their world its huge.

Tata [00:08:18] it's 100% right.

Wright [00:08:19] It was huge. Yeah, it was huge for me. Yeah, right. Yeah. It was a huge discount.

Hanlon [00:08:23] That experience. You have to understand that at that moment in time, they are there and they're experiencing this and they don't they do not know how to manage it. They really don't.

Tata [00:08:35] It's crazy. You know, I always said no matter what kind of person you are, no matter what your practice philosophy, your study philosophy is, you are -- my class was 109 big. So we're literally together with 108 other type-A people.

Wright [00:08:52] Right.

Tata [00:08:54] This is what we've done, all the way up into getting into dental school. You know, we, every point, every little thing, it's what we've been critiqued on. So, you take all those people, you put them together, you're the best of the best. And now you're, you know, competing, not even competing. But you just see other people around you and you're like, "Well, why didn't I get that point? Or Why?

Wright [00:09:13] Right?

Tata [00:09:14] Why did their practical pass and not mine?

Hanlon [00:09:16] But I did have a conversation with a student yesterday and I said to her, "Stop worrying about this stupid stuff." I said, "Whether you graduate number one in your class or last in your class, if you graduate, they still call you doctor." So, you know, start concentrating more on the bigger things and not concentrating so much on the little.

Wright [00:09:40] That's exactly where, what I took from that conversation. And I will say. MJ, like, the words that you spoke to that student, they may not land with him or her right now, but now when I reflect on that situation, I feel like that faculty member actually helped me a lot to not get so rattled. And another thing that she helped me with was to not feeling like I had something to prove because I felt like, okay, just with my background, trying to get in a dental school, you know, going through all of the rigors and all of these ropes and things like that, I felt like I had something to prove not only to myself but also to everybody else who was in the class with me who may have also known my story. So, it kind of made me do a little bit of a deeper dive and to reflect on myself and to see what was I trying to prove and why was I trying to do that? And it actually centered me and I feel like it really helped me grow, like, almost instantly in that moment. Not that I let every little thing go as far as my grades went at that time, but I feel like it made me stop and remember that I didn't have anything to prove because I was in the class with those individuals.

Hanlon [00:10:50] And look at you today.

Tata [00:10:51] Yeah. You quickly learn what's important and what's worth it. I feel like, you know, especially between first and second year, I, I, was that person, again. I was that person. And it, just overwhelmed. You can't keep up with it. It's not possible to sustain that and sustain, you know, your sanity. So, I, at some point in time and I don't know how I came to this wisdom, but I would ask myself the night before any test, anything, and I would ask myself, did I do everything that I could within my power to prepare for this? And if I could tell myself yes, then, you know, whatever happens on that test, whatever happens on the practical happens. If I say no, then you know it's on me. But then I would ask myself, why? Why, no? What did I do otherwise? And maybe something else wasn't more important, you know? And you learn what interests you. I mean, I, I, love orthodontists. I hate ortho for my whole life. Like, I, not a single case will I touch. So, you know, I did what I needed to do to get out of those classes and ,and get done with them. But I put my interest in things that I liked and went above and beyond in those things. So I think, you know, that's something you slowly grow not only in dental school but in practice as well.

Hanlon [00:12:09] Agree, agree. So, Dr. Tata, why don't you share your story with us?

Dentistry and Formula One racing

Tata [00:12:14] All right. So I have a weird schedule. I work 7 to 7, 3 days in a row. So Monday through Wednesday, 7 to 7, work straight through. So my Wednesday 5:00 appointment will make or break how my week goes. I, it will, it will test me. So, one day I decided to be brave and I decided to see this -- I had a 16 year old or teenager, you know, just finished ortho and he, he didn't, unfortunately not the best hygiene and we had to essentially do quadrant dentistry and all, all four quads and multiple fillings and he was anxious and he was curious. Mom did not want to go to, you know, a sedation dentist. So, I said I would try. Boy did I try. So, you know, it was, two hour appointment. We scheduled it. It took me about 30 minutes to convince my patient that, you know, nitrous will be great for you. Just. Just put the nose on. We'll go slow, it. And if you don't like it, we can take it off. But I think it's going to help you, especially with his. The anxious tendencies, the, the very curious lot. Very chatty. Had a lot of questions. So, we finally got the nitrous nose on him and it was great. Somehow we. So, one weird fact about me is I love Formula One racing. I think it's so cool. I mean, I want to drive one of those cars. How can my dentistry skills transfer over to Formula One? I don't know. But when I figure it out, that'll be great. Somehow we came up on that topic and he also mentioned that he liked Formula One racing. So with this nitrous nose if you know, the nitrous finally went on for the last hour and a half of the appointment. Again, 5:00 now, 5:30 on a Wednesday after I've already worked 2, 12 hour days, I had to be the commentator for an hour and a half. And we pretended that my patient was a Formula One race driver. And you could see the foot, you know, press on the pedal and everything. But any time I would stop commentating or commenting and like, you know, talking this scenario out, immediately, panic settled. So, for an hour and a half, I pulled every brain cell I had together and somehow magically made it through this appointment as a commentator. And at the end of it, we cheered. I cheered because I was done, you know, he cheered. It was done.

Hanlon [00:14:48] I'd be cheering for you too.

Tata [00:14:49] My assistant cheered that we were all done. It was happy, you know. The only thing missing was like the champagne spray bottle. I would have really appreciated that. I remember walking, we were done. I walked into my office and I just put my head on my desk and I think someone came in to ask me a question. I just put my hand up and I was like, no words, no words, no energy. And I think my front desk just laughed at me when I left. And I just, like, had my head down, like my face was drained of energy. I think I just, like, rode home in silence cause I didn't want to hear anything. I didn't want to talk. I remember my mom called me and I just texted her, not today. And I mean, you know, it's funny what we do to try to get patients comfortable. And I don't even know how the situation happened or how that creativity came together, but it did. And, you know, the patient ended up being great. I for all the, you know, rest of the appointments from then on out, nitrous went on right away and they became, you know, a lot shorter. But that first appointment.

Wright [00:15:54] How many years out were you at that time?

Wright [00:15:57] This was two months ago.

Wright [00:15:58] Oh, okay. I'm going to say. I was going to say, because when we turn the curve, you know, five years out, maybe you're like, absolutely not. You know.

Tata [00:16:09] If you asked me to do this one, not even like two years ago, no. Wouldn't have happened. I would have referred right away. But, you know, especially I think since we have to deal with, like, insurance and reimbursement and all of the fun joy that we get. We were trying to work with patients because we want to keep them. And, you know, especially this is a whole family and, great family. And I, you know, I want to keep them as patients. The one thing they don't teach you in school is how to talk to people and how to do, kind of the patient management, which we do get some patient management. But, the I find that there are little things you have to do or boundaries you have to draw. And you don't learn how to do that in school because you know.

Wright [00:16:56] Yeah. Because we're trying to get our requirements.

Tata [00:16:58] Exactly.

Hanlon [00:16:59] Exactly, we have other things we are focusing on.

Tata [00:17:00] And. Yeah. And the same ,same week I had I, I'm sure you guys could probably relate, children can be fine, their parents sometimes it's the, it's the parents. And drawing the line of when and I think that's something that honestly I probably learned in the past few months because I've been seeing I, I, I need to talk to, to the front desk about my schedule. I don't know why I'm seeing so many teenagers, but I think that's another skill I picked up over the last few months was how to tell a parent: "I think it's best you sit in the front room."

Wright [00:17:34] Oh, yeah.

Tata [00:17:34] My, I mean, it got to the point I had, you know, and it wasn't just one parent. It was a few. Standing so close to my assistant that she can't even move her elbow. And I mean, there's a chair in the corner, but nope. And, you know, sometimes the kids do great. You know, the way our operatories are set up, we have a TV on the ceiling and TV in front of them. They put on whatever they put on and they're zoned out. But ,it, it is the parents sometimes. And I think again. These skills. I feel like, you know, maybe five years is the mark where you start learning little tricks and tips. And, you know, someone told me something that stuck with me. And I heard it the other day, too. And it's if it hasn't happened to you yet, you haven't been practicing long enough.

Wright [00:18:18] Haven't been doing it long enough.

Tata [00:18:19] Exactly, within reason. And that is something that I found myself saying. And I think it's such, such an important thing because once it happens to you, you like, realize maybe hindsight, you realize all the things you could have done better and then you start using them in the future. And I think again, that's something that just comes with time. And that's why I really pushed for this episode, because early on in my career there was so much that I'm like, Is it just me? No, it's everyone. We just don't like to talk about it.

Wright [00:18:48] Exactly. And that's, that's a big thing.

Announcer [00:18:51] On the next dental sound bites.

Hanlon [00:18:53] Recording live at SmileCon 2022 in Houston, we explore the value of organized dentistry, why membership matters, and how you can help shape the future of our profession.

Hanlon [00:19:09] Dr. Tata, I am so happy that you had such insight and vision for this episode, because I think we all agree that we could do version number two of this because of so many great, impactful hints that we can give to our audience.

Tata [00:19:26] Thank you. Yeah. Thank you for having me. You know, when you get enough dentists together and they start talking about all the crazy things that have happened, we can definitely provide a lot of wisdom.

Wright [00:19:35] Yeah. Dr. Tata, I'm super excited to have met you, and I think it's safe to say I made a friend tonight, so do not be surprised.

Tata [00:19:42] Definitely.

Wright [00:19:43] If we stay in contact.

Tata [00:19:44] No, I would love that.

Hanlon [00:19:46] That's awesome. So, if you like what you heard tonight, everyone, please subscribe to the podcast wherever you're listening, so you can get our latest episode.

Tata [00:19:54] And we also want you to rate us. Write a review. Come back for more. Because this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Announcer [00:20:03] Thank you for joining us. Dental Sound Bites is an American Dental Association podcast. You can also find this show's resources and more on the ADA member app and online at ADA.org/podcast.