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Spring 2019 Newsletter: A Personal Story - Curiosity Got the Best of Me

I have always been an observer, a curious individual. As a young child, I would sit with my father on a bench at the mall or any other public place and we would just watch people. It was, and still is, intriguing for me to see the characteristics that make us individuals - the peculiarities of each person, whether they be physical peculiarities, mannerisms, or personalities. I was also very interested in health sciences in general from a young age and went on to receive my DDS from the Universidade Federal Fluminense in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2013.

Prior to enrolling in dental school I had no idea that oral medicine existed, but it fascinated me to see how oral medicine, the clinical application of diagnostic sciences, tied everything together and provided meaning, purpose, and a productive outlet for my observant, curious tendencies. I was privileged to have mentors and professors who encouraged my interest in oral medicine throughout dental school.

In 2014, I began oral medicine residency at Harvard School of Dental Medicine/Brigham and Women’s Hospital (HSDM/BWH) combined with a doctor of medical sciences degree. There, I had the opportunity to learn and be challenged under the expertise of the renowned oral medicine team and medical specialists at BWH and my research mentors at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, where I carried out basic research in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma. I am deeply grateful for all the support I received from my faculties and mentors throughout my training as well as to the AAOM’s support through the award granted by the Research Advancement Committee. 

My greatest debt, however, is to the patients who entrusted me to care for them. I was exposed to so many riveting cases – cases that beforehand I had only heard about – piquing and feeding my curiosity. Though we speak of cases, we are constantly reminded that they represent people. Curiosity demands navigating through the unknown, which is exciting and stimulating for the clinician, but oftentimes frightening and taxing for patients in search of answers for their suffering, exposing the sometimes unpleasant reality of this passing human existence. In a training setting with a high volume of oncology patients, both in residency and in dental school in Brazil, suffering was abundant, and sometimes overwhelming. However, to have shared even a portion of that treacherous load and heard their stories, to have offered some level of peace or relief, to witness their resolve, perseverance, and attitude in the face of adversity, for me those were the greatest learning points. This is also the bittersweet beauty of oral medicine. Our patients are constantly motivating us to continue acquiring knowledge, answers, and solutions to their health problems, to reach for excellence and avoid complacency. They are our “forever-instructors” and hopefully making us better people.

Having moved on from residency in 2018, I miss those patients and colleagues I grew to know closely for some years, those relationships, but now is the time to make new ones. Currently, I am a clinical assistant professor at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. My first week at the University, I lost my way in the Children’s Mercy hospital next door, but it was a fortuitous loss of direction that led me to a plaque with the following reinforcing quote: “Skill cannot take the place of sympathy and understanding, for science without heart is ugly and pitiless” (Dr. Katherine Berry Richardson).

Oral medicine is the “whole package,” a unique and encompassing specialty that I am delighted to be a part of, and I look forward to continue learning from my patients as well as my colleagues and mentors within this Academy.

Tiffany Tavares, DDS, DMSc