“What if I don’t want to go back?” I asked.
I was sitting in yet another Zoom meeting. This one with friends from all over the country. We had been together in person so many times. We knew each other’s stories. I’d been challenged many times by the leader to dig deep, look inward and answer the question “What if you could no longer be a dentist? What would that look like?”
Here we were again—full circle—except the new normal set by COVID-19 was forcing me to voice a similar tough question to myself: “What if I don’t want to go back?”
I was conflicted. I was spending an hour-and-a-half every week with my office team, creating different Zoom meeting themes, and was trying to keep everyone excited about going back to work once COVID-19 restrictions were lifted. I spent hours listening to continuing education and searched the internet for reliable sources for personal protective equipment (PPE). I talked daily with friends who were also small business owners worried about how to navigate this new normal and the maze of paperwork to secure funds via programs like the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL), and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The isolation and stress were very real. FaceTime became a lifeline.
Meanwhile, I was also gardening and happy to be in my nest. I was growing tomatoes for heaven’s sake. I ordered more roses and filled out my herb garden. I watched as the clematis bloomed and wisteria wrestled with my fence. I enjoyed the spring show as primrose jasmine, bridal wreath, althea, then trumpet vine made their appearance. Lady Banksia, Zephrin Duhon and Cecile Brunner roses put on their show. My garden was blooming, but really, I was blooming. How could I go back?
I was emotionally exhausted, and yet, my body was healing. I signed up for twice weekly Pilates sessions via Zoom—a luxury I never had time for in the previous “real” world. I relished the one-on-one time I had with my instructor. I joined my Zumba teacher as she taught our Saturday morning class online and laughed out loud as I danced in my kitchen. Without the commitment to church and choir, I began riding my bike on Sunday mornings. My body began to release 32 years of dentistry angst.
I knew I could sell my practice and continue down this path of early retirement and enjoy a simple gardener’s life. I could nestle in and be happy with the many chapters of my dental career. But I wasn’t ready. Something bigger was calling me back. As an oldest child, I often wrestle with expectations about doing the right thing. But in the midst of isolating at home, silently digging deep in the dirt, I found the real clarity that I’d been searching for. There wasn’t a need to wrestle. The right thing was to go back. It wasn’t about obligation. It was about what was in my heart.
I missed my team and my patients. I missed the opportunity to change someone’s life by improving their smile. I missed the opportunity to improve someone’s health. I missed learning new procedures and techniques. I missed my colleagues and the community we built together. I missed being a mentor to my associates and watching my team grow as leaders. I missed being a leader and a healer. I missed the challenge of running the business with my team. I missed the power of connection and joy that comes from being part of people’s lives.
I missed the gratitude and sense of purpose that practicing dentistry has given me.
In the end, digging in the dirt helped me find answers to the tough questions. I wanted to go back to my practice not because I HAD to but because I CHOSE to. This time with more gratitude than angst. And no matter how amazing the blooms get in my garden, I know I will always be a dentist.
About the Author
Dr. AnnMarie Olson has practiced dentistry in Austin for over 30 years and believes in a “high tech and soft touch” approach to dentistry. With advanced training in cosmetic dentistry, full mouth restorations, sleep apnea and sedation dentistry, Dr. Olson has created a patient-centered private practice at AnnMarie Olson DDS PA, with an emphasis on each patient’s total health. She is a past president of the Capital Area Dental Society and was the first woman elected to this position. She represented Texas as trustee to the American Association of Women Dentists and was the first president of the Texas Association of Women Dentists. Dr. Olson is regularly featured in Texas Monthly magazine as a “Super Doc” and was recently recognized as a “Woman to Watch” by Austin Woman magazine.