Dental Boot Camp,
or Life in the Preclinic
words by Henry S. Marder, DDS / photograph by John Emerson
o you remember your first day in preclinic, when you were beginning General Dentistry Operative? You opened an endless collection of little boxes and packets containing the burs and instruments, all with funny sounding names. The Hollenback, Weidelstadt and Toffelmeir: It sounded like a law firm.
Those hatchets, chisels and hoes all looked alike. Is this dental school, or The Home Depot? Finally, something looked familiar. You recognized the mirror and explorer from sitting in the dental chair as a patient. Grasping the instruments, you turned to the student next to you and said — very authoritatively —“Open wide!” Everyone laughed and returned to organizing their cassettes.
That scene and the thrill of the new semester occurs every year, as our freshmen students come to New Jersey Dental School (NJDS) preclinic to start on the road to becoming a Doctor of Dental Medicine. The hand pieces are distributed and are carefully connected to the air hoses. Some students stare at the drill, as if it will magically start. “How does this thing work? How do I make it move?” they think.“The foot controller, of course. I knew that!” Struggling to insert a bur, each student tries the new-found instrument and revs it up, as if it were a new Corvette. This is the first day of their new lives.
Students quickly learn that scrubs, along with gloves, masks and protective eyewear, make up the preclinic uniform, and will be what they wear to work for the rest of their dental careers. The mannequin is their patient; they’re told to treat it the way they, themselves, would like to be treated. And then there’s ergonomics: “Sit up straight, do not hunch over and use the mirror,” they’re told, “or you’ll get a bad back.”
Some students become anxious, frustrated and upset, as they struggle to achieve the proper depth, smoothness and outline form for a cavity preparation. These students are among the best academically, but the preclinic is different than cramming for a didactic exam. This is the obstacle course found in Marine boot camp. This is the practice field, where Olympians and other athletes train on the way to winning the Gold, the Cup or the Trophy. It is the endless practice of a musician striving to achieve the perfect pitch, rhythm and clarity of a professional performer. It is reminiscent of the old joke, “Excuse me sir, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer, “Practice, practice, practice.”
This is what students do in preclinic. They practice, train, and repeat procedures. It is here they develop the skills they’ll need to treat patients, first in NJDS clinics and eventually in their own offices. Here they learn to make a “filling,” because of an understanding they have gained of dental anatomy, occlusion and esthetics.
Dental Boot Camp is over at the end of the students’ sophomore year. The training is tough and strenuous, but it makes for a much smoother transition into the clinic. Treating people is difficult, but a solid procedural foundation reduces that stress. The success of preclinic depends on a number of things: a dedicated faculty, the dispensary staff —who hand out the needed supplies, as a parent would to a child — and the equipment repairman, who constantly maintains the units.
NJDS preclinic is successful. Students do exceptionally well on national board exams and are accepted into the many specialty training programs of their choice. They also go into private practice, join the military, and earn additional degrees, such as law and medicine. Thanks to Dental Boot Camp, among other things, NJDS students achieve their goals.