Connecting the Dots

Follow Dr. Sarah Khan's journey from residency to private practice.

The late Steve Jobs said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards”.  When I first started my dental journey, I never thought I would finish my pediatric dentistry residency five years after I graduated Stony Brook School of Dental Medicine. While many people come into dental school with preconceived ideas of specialization after graduating, I was keen on bolstering my didactic and clinical education to be a well-rounded general dentist. Starting in the summer of my first year, I began my Masters of Public Health classes in the evenings after clinic – an undertaking that was both rewarding and demanding.  My goal was to understand oral health from a macro perspective to conceptualize the importance of prevention and the impact of social determinants of health on healthcare delivery. My Master’s practicum left a lasting impact on my career as I became fiercely passionate about inter-professional collaboration and its value on patient care. I witnessed the role a dentist has in the larger healthcare system and more importantly the role a pediatric dentist can have on ensuring a child is set up for a lifetime of good health.

Keen on establishing myself as a general dentist who is also competent with treating children, I wanted to go to a General Practice Residency (GPR) that had a robust pediatric dental rotation. As GPRs get increasingly more popular, I am often asked by dental students what are the strengths and weaknesses of my program. Aware of my interests, it was essential that I matched into a GPR program with a robust pediatric dental rotation. There is only so much that can fit into a 1-year program, therefore I accepted what would be considered by most to be a weakness in the program – in that I did not get an opportunity to place implants. Looking back to my GPR – I absolutely loved the year I spent at New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell.  I was even able to see a real-life manifestation of my practicum during our 6 weeklong rotation at Memorial Sloan Kettering, where the dental team was essential to a patient’ overall care plan. Hesitantly confident in my independent didactic and clinical skills – I was ready for the next step of working as a dentist in the real world.

The transition between GPR residency and entering the workforce was challenging. During residency I had a great cohort of residents and attending to consult with difficult treatment plans or roadblocks in procedures. However, in my new job I was practicing as a solo practitioner in a busy multidisciplinary practice in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. During my two years of working in private practice I was fortunate enough to work in a bustling with amazing support staff. I mastered the art of trouble-shooting difficulties with treatment and navigating treatment plans within my own inner monologue. My saving grace was my seasoned dental assistant who would consistently remind me that I was doing a good job and provided the necessary boost of confidence whenever I was struggling. Almost every week, I would come across an adult patient with crippling dental anxiety. Oral health and wellness has a multi factorial etiology but in my experience many of the aforementioned patients cited traumatic dental experiences as a child as the cornerstone of their current state of health. I deeply wanted to tackle this public health crisis at the beginning and was fortunately able to transition my role in private practice to only treating children. I established a robust foundation in pediatric dentistry from both a clinical and didactic perspective through dental school and my GPR. However, my greatest source of competency came from my new pediatric dentistry mentor and dental assistants with multiple years of experience. Almost immediately, everyone around me saw a change in my attitude and outlook in regards to my job. Every day, I found myself happier and excited to go to work. My mission was to build a strong and trusting foundation between kids and their dentist at an early age to set them up for a lifetime of good oral health.

My decision to apply for pediatric dental residency was obvious but absolutely came with some challenges. Having been working in my position for 1.5 years I had established rapport with my patients and their families. I was seeing patients coming back from recall with improved behavior and oral hygiene. As I settled in my career, I realized that I needed to formalize my training to fill in the missing puzzle pieces in my knowledge base and to add more tools to my toolbox. I wanted to be skilled, knowledgeable and proficient in every aspect of pediatric dentistry. On the interview trail, I was delighted to find practicing dentists just like me who had spent time in the workforce and were looking to go back to residency. Everyone’s journey was unique, but I found so many commonalities. It was as if I found this secret community of peers with the same passions and aspirations. After working two years in private practice as the solo dentist – I was absolutely giddy to be working alongside others.

Forever on the move, I matched at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY and my husband headed further south to Maryland for his fellowship in gastroenterology. Our long-distance marriage during a global pandemic was overwhelming on most days, however, we adapted and made our own special routine. The patient population in Brooklyn was incredibly diverse ranging across different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. While I picked up on new techniques and skills from my attending and co-residents, the real takeaway from residency was my newfound fearless outlook. Prior to starting residency, I was terrified of treating an F1 emergency patient. Day by day, patient by patient, I become more confident and competent, and I am so excited to see how I continue to grow after graduation. Despite the challenges of being a resident in COVID-19 hotspot, my pediatric residency experience was overall positive. I loved being surrounded by a group of amazing co-residents that inspired me to provide my patient’s with the absolute best. We laughed, we complained, we learned and grew together every day. One of the most memorable parts of my residency was when Sprig came into our program for a hands-on course on how to prepare teeth for esthetic Zirconia crowns. The esthetics of Sprig’s EZCrowns are brilliant but the biocompatibility allows for a decreased accumulation of plaque and biofilm which is essential for gingival health. During my 2nd year I served as chief resident which allowed for the development of my leadership skills. Not only were we in charge of logistics of our clinic day to day and schedules, my co-chief and I provided support for conflict resolution. The most rewarding part of my role was the ability to mentor the new first year residents through treatment plans and challenging treatment as well as behavior. It was through these encounters that my love for teaching blossomed. After graduation, I vowed to not only practice but also teach the future generation of dentists.

Keeping in theme with my annual moves, on July 1st, I loaded my life into a 14-foot truck and moved down to Maryland to join my husband. Circumstances outside of my control delayed the processing of my Maryland dental license and there was a subsequent hold up in credentialing with insurance companies. Therefore, I wasn’t able to start my intended job that I signed a contract for earlier in the year. This seemingly negative situation turned out to be a blessing disguise as I was able to relax and rekindle my love for jigsaw puzzles and embroidery. Naturally, my hands got restless for the feel of a hand piece and was able to work in the capacity of a Locums Tenens pediatric dentist. Officially in September 2021, I started my current position as the lead dentist in an established dental practice in Olney, Maryland. This job and office feels like home. Almost immediately, I established genuine connections with the patients as well as the staff. The caries risk of the population is overall lower than my patients in Brooklyn – I am able to focus on prevention centered habits and other interdisciplinary modalities like lactation concerns and airway health. I am looking forward to having longevity in this practice and establishing lifelong relationships with my patients and their families. Throughout my journey I never once doubted that the dots would connect in my future.  I am looking forward to connecting more dots and painting a beautiful picture as I continue a path to pediatric dentistry.