Dental Safety Net Turned My Worst Nightmare into a Collaborative and Supportive Reality

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When I was approached by Dental Safety Net to share my story for this journal, I experienced a flood of emotion – taking me back to the time when I thought I might lose my practice forever. Fortunately, most of my feelings are that of gratitude, but I certainly want to remain transparent and forthcoming about my entire experience.

My name is Stuart Rich and I have been a general dentist for the past 30 years. After graduating from university, I made the decision to immediately go into private practice– a choice that I felt would enable me to work closely with my patients to develop familiar and trusting relationships with them over time. I very much enjoy getting to hear about my patient’s updates about their children or weddings, for example, and I wouldn’t trade this decision for the world.

Since I opened my doors, things have been going very well for me. I was fortunate to have multiple hygienists working with me each day and I even had an associate for the last 6 or 7 years. I was so proud of what I’d built, and I was receiving a tremendous amount of positive feedback from my patients. I was truly living the dream.

During this time, I had been ignoring some nagging back pain that I simply attributed to being an overweight, too tall, out-of-shape dentist. I had put up with it for quite some time when I eventually thought I should really get it looked at – so I did. When I went for my appointment, I assumed the doctors were going to tell me I had a bulging disk or something small that might require some surgery; that I might require some time off.

Reality quickly came crashing down on me when the office called me back the day after I had my MRI and said the doctor needed to see me right away. I was scared and nervous, but I went in regardless – this needed to be addressed if I wanted to continue working.

During my urgent follow-up appointment, the doctor proceeded to throw the MRI image up on the screen and said that while he didn’t know what the mass was, it was quite serious. I had a large tumor and it was directly inside of my spine. In that moment, I don’t know if I have ever felt so terrified and hopeless in my entire life. So many questions were running through my head. I was worried about my family, my practice, my patients, and my staff. What would happen to them? What was going to happen to me?

Not long after, I went into surgery thinking it was cancer and wondering if I would survive it or, most certainly, wondering if I would be in a wheelchair when it was over.

That day was the shortest day of my life and the longest day for my wife and children. I hope to never put them through that again.

The good news was that it was not cancer. The bad news, however, was that the surgeon recommended I never go back into general dentistry – it could be dangerous for my health. For someone who is extremely passionate about what I do, like most us in the field, this was devastating news to hear.

Fortunately, about 12 or 13 years ago, I had joined a group of other dentists through Dental Safety Net. This group was ultimately a godsend to my wife and I, as the fate of my practice was one less thing we had to worry about. I wasn’t going back to dentistry, but I knew I had this big practice, not only with patients to take care of, but with staff who were loyal and excellent at what they do. I care about them tremendously. In that moment, I knew I needed to keep them working and I certainly didn’t want to lose them.

So, my group of Dental Safety Net colleagues stepped in very quickly to support me, my practice, and my family. The coordinator arranged the schedule on my behalf and provided a huge sense of relief and peace of mind for my team and my patients. All I had to do was focus on recovering, regaining my strength, and putting faith into my support network to do the rest.

The interesting thing I found out later was that my patients thought it was really cool  that some of my colleagues of mine were stepping in to take care of my staff, of them, and of me. In fact, several of them mentioned that. As a result, they were much more accepting of the turmoil that was being caused in their life, because they could see I had
a huge network of friends who were helping me out. I think they really liked that – I did too.

Now, when I look back and reflect upon my experience, I do feel some angst about what could have happened had I not decided to become part of the Dental Safety Net family.

But, that being said, I mainly feel a huge sense of gratitude and relief – it is an experience I will never forget.

To my colleagues reading my story, I feel it’s important to remind you all that while we sometimes may feel invincible, we cannot stop the inevitable. Be prepared before it’s too late – you owe it to your family, your patients, your staff, and yourself.

Stuart Rich has transitioned to treating sleep apnea patients with dental solutions and practices in Auburn, WA. Rich has practiced general dentistry for the past 30 years and is well-loved as an outgoing and reputable dentist in his community.


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