When I was 12 years old, my parents came home one day and told my sister and I that they had found some firm lymph nodes and lumps in my mom’s breasts and the doctors had diagnosed her with cancer. My grandfather had passed away from throat cancer, so hearing THAT word for the second time in our lives was scary. Still, we didn’t really know what it meant or how it would impact us.
It was a challenging time. I was in 7th grade and my sister was in 5th grade. As our mother started chemotherapy and radiation treatment for her cancer, all of the other aspects of our lives continued to go on. My sister and I were both in braces, I was enrolled in tennis lessons, after-school programs and language classes, and my parents were thinking about moving. Looking back, my parents were superheroes and they did their absolute best to keep our activities and school as regular as possible. I’m pretty sure we still made it to every single orthodontic appointment – I had four teeth out and to this day, I remember the feeling of power chain.
For a few months, we house hunted, which was really exciting. I was extremely happy when my mom found her dream home, but part of me was worried about going to a different school. We stayed at our old schools as long as possible and commuted 40 minutes twice a day. As my mom grew weaker and needed more treatments, we eventually did have to change schools.
My sister started her new school first and for a short period, my mom continued to make the long trek with just me to my old school. It was a special time we shared and I had the chance to talk to her about anything and everything. I never wanted her to be sad but, sometimes, it was unavoidable. One of my clearest memories of her was during one of these commutes. She was driving her blue Mazda MPV minivan and I asked her, “What will happen if you pass away?” In the way only a mother knows how, she told me how much she loved me, that she would always be a part of me, and not to worry about that because we had so many people who loved us. As sad as this memory makes me, this has always given me strength. I ended up switching schools twice in 8th grade. While I didn’t know it at the time, it was at my second school that I would meet my closest and best friends. BFFs, before the term BFFs was a thing.
Once we moved, our commute to the orthodontist became longer as well, but my parents made it work. I won’t lie, I had a few broken braces and probably could have been more diligent with my elastics, but I got the job done. My orthodontist, Dr. Joe, which was his last name, was an older Chinese gentleman (is this the way kids think about me now?). He had a good sense of humor, was always interested in how we were doing, and played 80s and 90s music all of the time – does that sound familiar to anyone? My dad told him about my mom and he never treated my sister and me any differently. We always felt at home at his practice and well taken care of. I later found out from my dad that he was very generous to our family.
I finished my braces in the 8th grade, and I immediately traded them in for glasses. We were lucky to have great smiles and my parents were thrilled with the results, which we always showed off, of course. Another thing I remember vividly is my mom’s smile. It was a beautiful, gorgeous, infectious, and uplifting smile. Think of any positive adjective and that was what her smile was like. It meant a lot to me. Naturally, when you smile at someone, they smile back. It’s something that doesn’t have any language barriers, which is why I think it’s so powerful. I don’t have many memories where my mom wasn’t smiling. I didn’t have the foresight to ask her what our smiles meant to her, but now that I’m a father, I think I have a good understanding.
Halfway through my freshman year, or as Canadians call it, grade 9, we celebrated our last Christmas with my mom. Shortly after our winter break, she passed away. We were crushed, but we came together and truly became the strongest family we could be in her absence. She left my sister and I a mantra that we still both use, “Be happy, healthy, strong and positive.” Both my mom and dad had slowly been preparing us for a future without her and my dad was the glue that kept us together. I also built a lot of meaningful relationships in high school and this made my loss more bearable. I vowed for a long time that I would go to school and become an oncologist. Clearly, it didn’t turn out that way.
While in college, I felt lost when I pondered what I wanted to do with my career. I volunteered in hospitals and realized that because of my experience and the feelings it stirred up, I couldn’t become a medical doctor. I thought hard about how I could still make a difference in a health-related field and that’s when I was hit by thoughts of Dr. Joe. Though, truthfully, my dad may have had a part in “inceptioning” that in mind. In my heart, everything came back to a smile and I felt that this was a way I could have an impact on people’s lives.
As soon as I started dental school, I felt empowered to make the most out of it, which is probably why I did much better academically than I did in college. I really pushed myself hard because I knew that I needed top grades to get into an orthodontic residency program. When I was accepted, I wrote a letter to Dr. Joe to let him now he influenced my life. To my surprise, he wrote me back and asked me to call him. The summer before I started my residency, I met with him and we caught up. It was an amazing experience. He was a hero to me. It’s strange to think of him as a hero, but heroes are people who make a difference in others’ lives and aren’t doing it for the recognition. Dr. Joe told me he was writing his memoir (who does that? Dr. Joes does that!) and wanted my permission to include a copy of my letter. Obviously, I gave him the green light.
I became an orthodontist because going through orthodontic treatment changed me for the better. A great smile is so much more than straight teeth; it’s something to build lasting memories on and I feel privileged to be able to do that for my patients. I know that although my circumstances, sadly, aren’t unique, a healthy, confident smile can be life altering. I can finally give back in a way that is meaningful to me. Thank you for taking the time to read my story and learn more about why I do what I do.
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