Living a Dream
words by Merry Sue Baum / photograph by Pete Byron
ou could say Laura Hellinger, DMD, is one of dentistry’s First Ladies. When she enrolled at UMDNJ-New Jersey Dental School (NJDS) back in 1977, she was one of only 13 women in a class of 75. Then, when she opened her own practice in 1981, she was among a mere two percent of female dentists in the entire country.
Hellinger wasn’t out to prove a point, however, nor did she want to be thought of as a pioneer, forging the way for other women who wanted to enter dentistry. She simply had a love of both art and science and liked helping others, and dentistry — she decided in high school — fit the bill perfectly. Her parents, she says, encouraged her to pursue her dream.
Entering the male-dominated world of dental school, Hellinger recalls, was not what she imagined. “The guys were very supportive; they helped me get through,” she says. “At times it was difficult being in the minority, but we were all in the same boat. We helped each other, no matter what.”
She eventually discovered that being a woman was, in fact, an asset. During her stint as a student in the pediatric clinic, the children were calmer and would respond to her much more quickly than to her male counterparts. “It wasn’t anything I did; it was that the kids saw me as a mother figure,” she says. “I felt sorry for the guys. Many of them were the size of football players and had huge hands. No matter how gentle and soft-spoken they were, the little ones were often still afraid.”
Even though the NJDS professors warned the female students that it would be tough entering the profession as newly graduated women, Hellinger did not find that to be true. She was amazed, she says, at the number of patients who told her they were happy to find a female dentist, particularly those who had young children.
Today, the Montclair-based dentist has a thriving practice that gives her a tremendous sense of fulfillment. As a general practitioner, she interacts with patients of all ages, cultures and personalities, and many have been coming to her for years. “You become more a part of people’s lives, because you see them routinely,” she says. “It’s fun to watch the younger ones grow and to hear all about what’s happening in their lives.” Her work is also varied: One day she may be a diagnostician, spotting any one of an array of diseases — from hypertension to cancer — that are manifested first in the mouth. Other days, she may use cosmetic dentistry to help people feel better about their smiles, and in turn, about themselves. It is also rewarding to be able to alleviate pain, she says, and to know that she is playing a role in maintaining a person’s overall good health.
“The old saying, ‘if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life,’ certainly applies to me,” she says. “I feel like dentistry is my hobby, that’s how much I enjoy it. I sometimes think I should pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming. General practice has been more rewarding than I ever thought possible.”
Perhaps, what Hellinger finds most gratifying is being part of a profession whose members regularly volunteer to provide oral health care to the elderly, handicapped and underprivileged. When her longtime friend and colleague, Nancy Kuhl-Errickson, DMD, asked for help, Hellinger was more than willing to go the extra mile. Kuhl-Errickson was being deployed to Kuwait for 90 days, and needed someone to keep her Chester, NJ, practice afloat. Hellinger spent one day a week there — more when it was necessary — making sure the bills were paid and things were perking along. Hellinger and two other dentists saw emergency patients during Kuhl-Errickson’s deployment, as well. “I’m not at all special; any dentist would do the same,” she says. “And I know that if I were in a similar situation, Nancy would be there for me. Helping others is a hallmark of our profession.”