Leaving Dentistry: This Way Out by Dr. Manu Dua

Leaving Dentistry: This Way Out 

It took a life-changing diagnosis for this doctor to consider a life beyond dentistry—and he says he couldn’t be happier

by Dr. Manu Dua

[Editor's note: Dr. Manu Dua died Sunday, March 14, in Calgary.]

For every dentist who’s deeply and passionately in love with their profession, there’s a plethora of dentists who can’t wait for the day they get to retire their handpieces and run out of the dental office, never to be seen or heard from again. That’s something few will admit, because who’d like to admit that they squandered almost eight years in school—and hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition and student loan debt—only to be guaranteed to be perpetually miserable?

I call this the “professional pursuit of unhappiness.” This is the forgotten and lost segment of our colleagues, because not only is it hard to share your displeasure but the minute you do so, you’re often downplayed by perennially happy colleagues who can’t wait to wake up to the smell of burned enamel in the morning. Then you’re left wondering whether you’re the single loser who can’t appreciate the gifts of this fine profession or your colleague who came back from a course after blowing thousands of dollars to finance the latest dental CE guru’s yacht is from a different planet.

This is a demanding profession, and quite frankly not all of us are cut out for the job. Unfortunately, many years of schooling and often poor hands-on experience in school lead few to have a good understanding on what they blew hundreds of thousands of dollars of the bank’s money on. Add student loan debt a few years later, coupled with practice loan debt, and these poor anxiety-riddled souls are wondering in their office as they waste the next three hours because of a no-show, whom they can thank for the woe they’re living in day in and day out.

Acting the part, but feeling false

I bring this up because I started as an extremely passionate advocate of this profession—often going on multiple dental mission trips to work for free in sweaty jungles and orphanages, all in the name of doing some form of good. Over the years, it started to occur to me that perhaps my personality type was not suited for this, and I noticed a slow and steady erosion of my social skills and patience as I transformed from a happy-go-lucky person to a darker and jaded soul.

Now, my patients always benefited from the best part of me, because I put on a brave face and gave them the best of me even as they lied to me about their oral hygiene habits, while I smiled and nodded, completely “ignoring” the can of Mountain Dew they brought to their appointment.

The cost of that was a slow erosion of my soul. I met some wonderful people, had wonderful staff and some great patients, yet deep inside was a sense of disenfranchisement that couldn’t be quelled. I gave my heart and soul to the profession and yet I found it hollow and unfulfilling, despite that superficially I had achieved most levels of success in terms of a steady happy patient pool, a wonderful loyal staff and a beautiful new clinic. Deep inside, though, I felt empty: a former shell of that once bright, excited young man who was overjoyed at opening his acceptance letter to dental school.

After my cancer treatment in August 2019, I recovered like a champion through sheer will and determination. I fought to regain my abilities to speak, eat and chew and came rushing back to work within six weeks. What I learned the difficult way after returning back to work was that even though I had changed, nothing around me had; my circumstances remained the same. This meant the mental anguish that once was palpable was now insufferable, because my mind had not adjusted to the trauma it had endured. What was even worse was that in my mind, this trauma was unjust, because I had no risk factor and like any well-trained dental professional, I avoided all of the known risk factors of oral cancer. That felt almost ironic at this point: the shoemaker whose own shoe was broken.

As I struggled through these mental demons, I witnessed the world descend into the beginnings of what would later evolve into a worldwide pandemic. Somewhere in the chaos of shutting down my clinic and figuring out what to do with my staff and patients and the clinic, I noticed a swelling in my jaw on the same side I had my surgery and neck dissection. Just a week prior, my best friend and dentist had performed some dental fillings, and after the procedure my neck had swollen up. Not to take anything lightly, I called my ENT surgeon immediately to schedule a biopsy and CT scans to confirm.

Another health challenge

On April Fool’s Day, I got a call from my ENT that the biopsy came back positive for cancer. It appeared that they had missed a lymph node from my first surgery. I would require a second surgery and subsequent chemotherapy and radiation in the middle of a pandemic and lockdown. I was then placed in quarantine to be safe before the surgery, and two days later, I found out that my grandmother had passed away.

Still in shock with all the bad news, I managed to make it through the next surgery and realized during my recovery that the mental and emotional toll was far too great for me to be able to manage my clinic to the best of my abilities while healing. So I made the difficult decision to sell the clinic in which I had invested so much of myself at great personal cost to build from scratch and make a success.

I decided to sell the clinic myself and, while recovering from surgery, I completed a dozen showings before finding the right individual with whom I was fortunate to share the same morals and values. I was blessed to find a buyer in the pandemic who did not in any way take advantage of my situation and was a pleasure to work with during the sale process.

As my clinic sale continued, I started my radiation and chemotherapy, which involved 33 treatments over the course of seven long weeks, whereby I had to visit the hospital every Monday to Friday. The pandemic precautions made this difficult process even more arduous; I was not allowed visitors during my treatments and consultations and had to face these all alone, which was not easy but, like most challenges in life, was not insurmountable with the right attitude.

The chemo and radiation treatments were extremely difficult to bear with—probably some of the most difficult and arduous days of my life. However, as they say, this too shall pass, and in due time it did, and truly what didn’t kill me only made me infinitely stronger.

Time to say goodbye to dentistry

After years of pondering whether dentistry was for me, I was basically granted my wish of an early release—“honorable discharge,” if you will. Here I was, free of all my responsibilities and worries, recovering from some traumatic events—and at this point, you’d think that I would’ve been deeply upset about the sense of loss and purpose. In this regard you would be incorrect.

I felt such a deep sense of relief and release of tension—as if a great weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Over time, people around me noticed a great change in my personality. I felt more relaxed, calmer, just a better person overall. The fault was never with my profession; the fault was that I recognized the inner conflict, yet never had the courage to do something about it earlier. Unfortunately, it took a life-changing event to forcibly thrust me into a different frame of mind and for that—despite the pain and turmoil—I am deeply grateful.

As I transition into a new life devoid of handpieces and hygiene checks, I find myself excited to explore all that is around me and engage the sense of self that died a long time ago as I was forced to put on a mask and pretend to be someone that I wasn’t. The tremendous debt and commitment required for us to reach our accreditation sometimes buries us with the fear and shame of moving on when we realize this path is not for us, and my only thought remaining is not, “Why did this happen to me?” but rather, “Why did I not act on this sooner?” The dark but beautiful side of facing your mortality at an early age is that you realize that death is the only ever-present factor and it respects no boundaries. The sooner we come to terms with this fact, the faster we can embrace our inner self and take full advantage of the precious years we may have left.

In summary, if you deeply feel that what you are doing goes against every fiber in your body, spend some time to do some soul-searching as to why you’re actually there. You will be surprised that most of us have chosen our paths without an in-depth analysis as to what we actually want, and hence we are left with a deep sense of unfulfillment. This can lead you into two paths: On one, you realize your original sense of purpose and your why, and can lead you to a renewed sense of fulfilment. The other can identify a glaring gap between your present choices and your true need for fulfillment and realize that on your current journey, the two will never meet.

Author Bio
Dr Manu Dua Dr. Manu Dua graduated from the University of British Columbia in 2012 and opened his own private practice in Calgary, Alberta, in 2016. He sold the practice in 2020.
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