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Resident Spotlight: Dr. Gordon S. Lai

Dr. Gordon Lai with his wife Makiko and their children Emma, Noah and Noelle

Compiled by Dr. Moein Sadrkhani

The Paper Point recently caught up with Dr. Gordon S. Lai, an AAE Foundation REACH Committee member and second-year resident at University of the Pacific, who shared why he chose endo and how he balances a very busy schedule of residency and family life.

The Paper
 Point: Gordon, thank you for accepting our interview request and sharing your story. You were in community clinic for 10 years and you were involved in mentoring AEGD residents. How hard was it to be a student again?
Dr. Gordon Lai: First of all, just wanted to say thank you for this opportunity to share my story.  Definitely the first quarter was a challenging transition for me, especially with regards to the intense didactic load we have in our program during the first quarter.  Being out of the school learning environment for so long, I had to relearn a lot of subjects I last studied during dental school such as microbiology, and immunology.  I also had to get used to reading a lot of articles each week for current and classic lit, and trying to memorize the key points from each article.  After making it through the first quarter, the subsequent quarters became more manageable since I was able to figure out a study schedule as well as study methods that would work for me.

The Paper Point: So, endo was not your favorite subject during dental school; how did you end up here? Was it one defining moment or it was a process?
Dr. Lai: If you had asked me at the time I graduated from dental school, if I would ever consider specializing in endo, I would have laughed.  When I was in dental school, I only got to do the bare minimum of root canal procedures and so I didn’t get enough exposure to the specialty.  I’m sure it is the same situation in a lot of schools with grad endo programs that a lot of cases end up being referred and students don’t get adequate experience with root canal treatment.

For me, deciding to specialize in endo was not one defining moment, but a continual process after I finished dental school and my GPR residency. You can say that my initial interest in endodontics was born out of necessity when I started to work at a community clinic in the Bay area.  When I started, none of the regular dentists felt comfortable providing endodontic treatment and consequently our patients were offered the option of extracting the problematic tooth or had to be referred out to a private endodontist.  Sadly, a significant number of our patients could not afford the fees of the private endodontist and ended up choosing to extract their problematic teeth.  Wanting to provider a better treatment alternative for our patients, I decided to start taking endo CE courses and hands-on workshops in order to further develop my clinical endodontic skills.

Initially, after I finished dental school and my GPR, my goal was to become a “super” general dentist.  Yet over the years of practicing, I realized that there is so much to learn and master given all the advances in technology each year and I reached a point in my career where I wanted to simply and focus on what I enjoyed doing most in dentistry, which was doing root canal procedures.

The Paper Point: What are the big differences learning-wise in residency compared with when you were a D.D.S. student?
Dr. Lai: I think one big difference: the interactions I have with faculty is different. Being a dentist already and having a lot of clinical experience, there is a certain built-in trust with the faculty so that they don’t hover over each step I do and I don’t need to get all these faculty checks at each point while I do treatment.  In dental school, it is usually you do exactly what your supervising faculty told you to do.  In our residency, we are fortunate to have a wide range of faculty with different philosophies and styles so it’s good to get their input on how they approach a certain case and you can also give your rationale for how you would like to treat a case. I think another big difference is learning the “why” and scientific basis behind each step we do in endodontics instead of simply, “this is the way I was told to do it.”

I think another difference is my own attitude when it comes to studying as well as my approach clinically.  During dental school, my mentality was more trying to survive and doing enough to meet the requirements so that I could graduate.  However, now my mentality in residency is more I want to challenge myself and test my limits by taking on the difficult/challenging cases since this is what I will be dealing with in the future.  Also, I am more interested in the didactics so that I can better explain the rationale of how I approach my root canal treatments.

The Paper Point: I see more experienced dentists applying for residency in endodontics; correct me if I am wrong but you are married and have three kids — how do you manage to balance between residency and family?
Dr. Lai: Yes, you are correct – I am married and have three kids – two of them are in middle school and the youngest is in second grade.  It can definitely be challenging and stressful at certain stretches of time since most of the time when I come home I need to make time to study and finish our reading assignments while helping take care of the needs of my kids at home. Time management is key and also I am really thankful to have a wife who is very supportive. I always joke with my coresidents that if I can manage to study and pass the classes with three kids, then they have no excuses and can definitely do it as well.

The Paper Point: I have seen your kids play piano and violin; do you play any instruments? What do you do when you are out of the office?
Dr. Lai: I used to play the piano and trumpet but sadly I quit and now looking back I always wished I had continued to play.  My kids’ musical talents come from my wife, definitely not from me.

Having three kids, they take up a lot of my time and attention when I get home each night in addition to studying, so there is not much free time during the week. On weekends, if I have time, I like cooking so I like to try out new recipes. My guilty pleasure to help unwind is watching food cooking shows or competitions on TV.

The Paper Point: Have you decided on your plans after residency yet?
Dr. Lai: I haven’t decided yet – right now I’m keeping my options open and seeing what opportunities will be out there once I finish. I am interested in continuing to work part time in a community clinic since I’ve enjoyed working in that setting in the past and that is definitely a population of patients that needs endodontic treatment.  I am also looking at options in private practice and I would like to continue teaching in some capacity whether it be with AEGD residents like I did before or with predocs in a school setting.

The Paper Point: How was your first Apices meeting? What was your favorite part?
Dr. Lai: It was a blast; besides getting to hear some great lectures, my favorite part was the opportunity to get to meet residents from all around the country and hear about their backgrounds and also share ideas. It was also fun getting to meet a lot of the residents I’ve gotten to know and interact with on Instagram for the first time in person.

The other part I enjoyed was getting to attend my first official REACH committee meeting and brainstorming and discussing future plans for the AAE Foundation, along with other residents as well as the Foundation staff.

The Paper Point: What was your motivation to get involved with REACH?
Dr. Lai: Being at UOP, I am fortunate to have several mentors at school who are actively involved with the AAE Foundation including Dr. (Alan) Gluskin, Dr. (Nava) Fathi and Dr. (Johnah) Galicia. Seeing their active involvement with the AAE was one of the reasons that inspired me to want to learn more about the AAE and the Foundation and how I could get more involved with it. In particular, given my background working with underserved populations, I was interested in learning more about the work that the Foundation has been doing to develop community outreach programs both domestically and internationally.

The Paper Point: Wish you all the best and good luck with your residency, any final words for our readers?
Dr. Lai: For the residents who are in the early part of residency or soon to be starting, I would say treasure every moment of residency and enjoy the ride since it will be over before you know. For me I still can’t believe I’m already a second year since the first year flew by. Try to maximize your learning experiences, and work with different faculty that have different approaches so that you will get exposed to different ways of approaching a situation.

About the author: Dr. Moein Sadrkhani is a member of AAE’s Resident and New Practitioner Committee and a UCLA Endodontics resident, Class of 2020.