Julie Ann Smith '90
Columbia University School of Dental Medicine
University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine
I am currently an oral and maxillofacial Surgeon. I have both a D.D.S. and an M.D. I am on active duty in the Army, teaching residents in the oral and maxillofacial surgery residency at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. and at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. I hold the rank of lieutenant colonel and I am the program director for the oral and maxillofacial surgery residencies at Walter Reed and at Bethesda. I also moonlight in a private practice in Rockville, Maryland. My patient population is composed of active duty soldiers and their dependents (spouses and children), retirees from the military, and foreign military members. The types of patients I take care of include the following: facial trauma (from Iraq and Afghanistan), those with jaw misalignment who require orthographic surgery, some cleft palate surgery, facial cosmetics, benign pathology and reconstruction with bone grafts, dental implants, and extraction of teeth. I also provide sedation and general anesthesia to our oral surgery patients. As a mentor to residents (they have finished dental school and are learning how to perform these surgeries during their four-year residency), I spend my time teaching them patient evaluation, treatment planning, surgical procedures, postoperative management and anesthesia management, among other didactic topics including medicine, anatomy, radiology, and pharmacology as they relate to oral and maxillofacial surgery.
So, how did I get to this? Well, I was always fascinated by medicine--since I was four years old, at which time I decided to become a doctor. That interest eventually shifted to orthodontics after I had gotten braces. I expressed this interest to an oral surgeon I knew and he said, "Why not oral surgery?" He explained to me what a broad field it was, encompassing anesthesia, medicine, trauma, cosmetics, pathology, etc. and mentioned that it was possible not only to go to dental school , but also that many oral surgeons also had gone to medical school to receive their M.D. So, based on that conversation, I decided that was what I wanted to be a dual-degree (D.D.S., M.D.) oral and maxillofacial surgeon. I was 15 years old. It only took until I was 33 to reach that goal!
I decided on MHC because of the strong science program--I felt this was important in preparing me to be a competitive candidate for dental school and medical school. True, they say you can major in anything you want and still get in as long as you do well in the required sciences, but I felt being a biology major and statistics minor was really helpful. Anyway, MHC offered strong sciences in the setting of a small college where I felt I could easily get personal attention and not be just a number. I was right. I was very strongly influenced by my endocrinology and histology professor, Dr. Jane Kaltenbach Townsend. She became a wonderful mentor to me through more than one research project, including my honors thesis. I made research proposals to her, and she helped me make it happen. That would not happen at a larger school. To this day, I still refer to my endocrinology textbook from her class and my residents cringe when they realize the subjects of diabetes, thyroid disorders, or pituitary disorders come up, because they know I will ask them lots of questions on these subjects I embraced as a junior in college learning from Jane. I graduated from MHC in 1990--I wish I never had to leave.
Ultimately, I went on to dental school at Columbia University in New York City, graduating from there in 1994, and went straight on to oral and maxillofacial surgery residency at University of Pittsburgh from 1994 to 2001. I attended medical school at University of Pittsburgh from 1995 to 1999, and did one year of general surgery training from 1999 to 2000 as part of my residency. The seven years of my residency were the best years of my life. I helped change people's lives by participating in face-changing surgeries, I helped save the life of a 15 year old gun shot wound victim and received a thank-you call from his mother a month later, I delivered a baby, I held the hand of an elderly severe burn victim as she passed away. The experiences I had in residency were life-changing to say the least. I am very proud that I interacted with so many different people on so many different levels and at so many different times of their lives.
Throughout all my education, I have been blessed to have the support of the U.S. Army. I was on an Army ROTC scholarship through the University of Massachusetts while I was at MHC. During dental school, I was the recipient of a U.S. Army Health Professions Scholarship which paid for three years of dental school. In return, I owed the Army seven years of active duty service. I have served five years so far at Walter Reed and I love it. I am so thankful for all the opportunities the Army has given me. I am truly fortunate. I love my patients. I get to take care of the bravest men and women in the country. Whether they have an injury, deformity, or some pathology, or they are in pain, I get to help them and improve their quality of life. Some of the injured soldiers have broken jaws and are missing teeth, bone, and soft tissue. My goal is to replace the missing bone, tissue, and teeth so they can smile, eat, talk, etc. Once we have gotten them to that goal they are so grateful. I am glad I can support our country during such a difficult time.
Would I do anything different? Not really--I would have tried to be healthier during residency, but it is hard when you don't have much time. Fortunately, now I am healthy and making up for all the bad food choices I made before. The only thing I don't like about my job is that it is very physically demanding being on your feet all day with your head bent down--I get very tired and sore. But would I trade my experiences for anything? No way!
The future--I hope to remain in academics, teaching residents. It is very challenging and requires a lot of patience, but it is so rewarding when you see the light go on and the resident develops skills they will carry with them their whole lives and hopefully will teach to someone down the road someday. Developing clinicians, researchers, and educators is what my job is all about. The best compliment to me would be to have my residents go on to teach also. So far, two of my former residents have done just that!
Advice to those who wish to pursue medicine or dentistry: work hard--those college grades will always matter. Get experience in the field you are interested in ahead of time--try to do a rotation in a hospital or doctor's or dentist's office. Realize that medicine/dentistry is hard work and requires your full dedication. But, it is truly rewarding. You don't have to have it all planned out at age 15 like I did, but the more you can learn about the field and expose yourself to it, the earlier you can develop a plan and start heading in the right direction.