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“All A-Board!” Article Series: Dr. Bobby Mallik

By A. K. Bobby Mallik, DMD

Fall of 2000: I remember getting accepted into the endodontic residency at the University of Iowa—what a wonderful feeling. It was my second year attempting to get into an endodontic program. I actually had a choice this year, and a move to Iowa was what I needed.

The residency began and I was loving it. Achieving a lifelong dream I never thought was possible: not only the chance to be a dentist, but an endodontist—what an honor.

I remember Dr. Walton and Dr. Rivera would talk about “the boards” and being “Board-certified”. I really didn’t care about this. Firstly, we couldn’t even apply for consideration until a few years after graduation and, secondly, I wanted to be on the shop floor treating patients, so what did I need to be board certified for? Not necessary.

My co-resident, Dr. Anne Williamson, was an Endodontic Educator Fellow in the program and off to full-time academia following graduation. There was another gentleman in our program who subsequently left after a year. Anne was only in the clinic a day or two each week, which meant more patients for me. I loved treating patients. I always had since my early clinical years in dental school.

After graduation, I went into private practice and was in my element. This is what I had been working towards and it felt great. Anne got her master’s and became faculty at Iowa. In a short time, she became fully Board-certified and was on her way; she became a director in the ABE. We stayed close and kept in touch, and I would send her films from interesting cases so she could share with residents to help in their training. I was happy for her. She was climbing the ladder in academic endodontics as I began my journey in private practice.

In 2006, three years after graduating with my certificate, I opened my own practice, then moved to a new location in 2017. I had to pinch myself every day because I couldn’t believe how it had all ended up. I was happy and content. I was where I wanted to be—or was I?

Over the years, Anne and I would see each other at meetings and talk frequently on the phone. She would talk about the boards, and I would smile and acknowledge their existence, but that was it.

I’ll never forget a day in 2016 when, after sending Anne a case to share, she called me and said, “I just don’t get how you do this type of work and have no desire to be Board-certified”. For the first time, this annoyed me, and I just suddenly began wondering if this could truly be a possibility so late in my career.

In August 2019, I spoke with my wife Nichol and my three young daughters. I asked them if it would be okay if I gave the boards a shot—one shot. It was going to involve commitment, sacrifice, and support. Were we willing, as a family, to go through what it would take to get Board-certified. It had been 16 years since I finished my residency, but I felt determined. My goal was to take the written exam in May of 2020, followed by the oral and, lastly, the portfolio. I was going to give myself two years to complete this.

I told my staff about my goal. I have a small solo practice where some days are busy and others are light. There’s no real rhyme or reason to the flow. They were supportive. I had my family and my staff on my side, and I was ready.

It took a while for me to get into the groove of studying after so many years. It started with a read of Pathways (it took a while), then The Dental Pulp and then Endodontic Microbiology. I realized how much I had forgotten and, as studying progressed, I realized how much I missed learning. After textbooks came literature; I hadn’t opened a JOE in probably 10 years. I spoke to Dr. Ashraf Fouad, the then-chair of endodontics at UNC, and he invited me to join the residents for the weekly lit review. This was a blessing, and it made me realize how much more there was than just private practice. I loved interacting with the residents. I think it was good for them to hear my perspective, but equally as good for stimulating my mind and thirst for knowledge.

2020 came and so came the Coronavirus pandemic. I went to the College of Diplomates meeting in Washington, D.C. the week before we went into lockdown. It was there that I saw Dr. Karl Keiser lecture about the oral exam; I wondered if I would ever get that far in the process.

A week later, the world was in an uproar and, selfishly, all I could think about was if the written ABE exam would be held on time. Fortunately, it was, but because of the extended exam administration that year because of social distancing requirements and multiple closings at the exam centers, the wait for the results was extended. Almost twelve weeks after taking the written exam, I received the result that I had passed. I was not expecting it and honestly cannot describe the feeling I had felt. Maybe like I was dreaming. Step one completed and onto step two: the oral.

I was so excited—onto step two. I eagerly emailed Dr. Keiser to introduce myself and ask him if he would send me his lecture on the oral exam. What happened next was amazing. Dr. Keiser sent me his notes and became my mentor for the rest of my board prep—how lucky I was.

Unfortunately, the oral exam was canceled for October, and the only option to keep moving ahead was to change my track and complete my portfolio. It was not what I had planned, but at that point I thought I should be able to find five acceptable cases having been in practice for seventeen years.

I had kept a file program of all my cases that Dr. Keith Krell had introduced us to while in residency. I started going through this and tried to find some cases I thought would be acceptable.

Dr. Keiser reviewed my cases and gave either a thumbs up or down. We spent about a month on each case, beginning in September 2020. By January 2021, I was ready to submit. I had Dr. Keiser and Dr. Fouad review my portfolio and give feedback, then I finalized my documents. The portfolio was due May 1, 2021. I submitted everything by the end of February, and then came the waiting game.

Here, I need to digress and speak about the ABE admin team: Ivana, Patricia and Kerri. They are an amazingly helpful group of women who are so willing to help and go the extra mile. I called and emailed them frequently during the time I was preparing—almost embarrassingly so. Each time, I was received with a warm, helpful, and committed response. The ABE is lucky to have such a supportive staff. Those of us that are small business owners know how important it is to have a unified team.

I didn’t know what the result of the portfolio would be, but I started studying for the oral exam. Dr. Keiser gave me a “mini mock” early in July to give me a taste of what would come. After so many years in practice, I felt confident, but the oral exam is a different game and requires serious and committed preparation. I really needed to focus.

In mid-July, I received an email that I had been successful in the portfolio. I was in shock and elated. This was the second of three, and now only one remained; was it possible that I may become a diplomate after so many years?

I went to the ABE site to register, only to find that the October 2021 oral exam was full, and I would be on a waiting list at best. I was devastated. It felt like I had been punched in the stomach. My motivation and enthusiasm took a downturn.

Dr. Keiser and I had become pretty good friends at this point, and he had been mentoring me through. He suggested I take a few weeks off and stop all preparation—play tennis, be with my family, and come back to it later. It was good advice, but I just didn’t want to quit. I was afraid I would forget all I had learned, so I took a two-week break.

On Aug. 16, 2021, Kerri from the ABE office told me there was a cancellation and a seat had become available for the oral exam if I would like it. I think I sent a response three minutes after I had received this. I had an opportunity to complete the process; it was a gift.

I was focused and kicked into high gear. Dr. Keiser was there with me every step of the way. It was tough because my practice had been busy and “I’ll study between patients” was not an option. I would get up early (4 a.m.) and study, work out, see my family, and head to work. In the evening after getting home, I would eat dinner and head up to my attic to study. It was like this for three months before the exam. My wife and children were so understanding. That was the best part. I almost felt like a machine, but with an endpoint in sight.

Dr. Keiser gave me multiple mock exams in preparation. Other colleagues and friends gave me mock exams and scenarios. Any excuse to have someone ask me questions was great; after being out of academics for so long, I wanted to leave no stone unturned in my preparation. Anne was always trying to keep me calm. We spoke frequently—she got me started on this journey and was going to see me through. She was a previous director and examiner, so she couldn’t say much, but I had her support which was all I needed.

In practice, all my patients were potential board cases. Going through radiographs in an ABE format became routine and, to be honest, I felt sorry for my patients as I would explain every aspect of their symptoms and discuss radiographic findings in detail. I’m sure they just wanted to be taken out of pain, but for the most part patients were accepting and understanding. I would ask them if they wanted the “cliff notes” version or the “ABE” version of why things were the way they were! Most asked for the ABE version and I’m sure they probably regretted it!

As the exam neared, I could feel myself getting stressed. I knew this stuff; I had been in practice for 18 years, yet some mornings I would wake up and want to throw in the towel because I couldn’t remember things or got frustrated with myself and my perceived lack of progress. Or so I thought.

I decided to tailor my schedule at work and, in the last month, only see patients in the morning. This would allow me time to compose myself and study in the afternoon. My staff were so helpful– they wanted this to be over as much as I did. “We want the old Bobby back,” I would hear.

At home, I know my family was at their end. This had been a long two years, and everybody was so supportive, but it was thinning. My wife missed her husband, and my daughters missed their father. It was getting to me. I missed them all too, and I wanted to be “the old Bobby” again.

The flight to St. Louis was awful. I was so nervous. I kept telling myself I could do this. Dr. Keiser would tell me, “You have done all you can do, and on Monday when you return to work, you will still have a full schedule and your patients will still love you.” He was right; I had to keep that in my head.

I didn’t know anyone at the hotel where the candidates stayed, but they were all in the lobby when I got there. At dinner time, I would listen to conversations around me. I could tell a lot of the candidates had finished their residencies recently. What the hell was I thinking?

The bus ride to the testing center was interesting; ten of us on the bus and not one word was spoken—the air was so thick with tension and stress. I wish this on no one!

There were three examinations. I stayed in the same room and the examiners rotated with a 10-minute break between each session. I felt like I started well in the first exam, but then my anxiety took over and I had to gain control, or it was game over. For many, I think nerves are high initially and then things stabilize. For me, it was the opposite. In the second exam, I felt the anxiety take over and for a moment felt like I couldn’t breathe. In fact, I asked the examiners if I could stand up, walk around the room, and compose myself. They were so understanding, and I remember one of them saying, “Don’t worry, we have all been there”. That certainly helped, and I was able to sit back down and continue. Here I was after practicing clinical endodontics for close to twenty years, yet I was allowing circumstances to take my emotions over.

After the exams were completed, I was completely numb. I remember walking to the bus and one of the admins running after me to give me my belongings that I had put in a locker prior to the start.

The bus ride back to the hotel was different, as there was lots of discussion and a lot of exhaustion. We had all studied for so many hours, weeks, and months for today, and 90 minutes later were done. I hoped this was my last step.

The next month of waiting was a challenge of its own. My emotions were spread in different directions. I didn’t know if I had it in me to go through this again—how could I put my family through that? I was enjoying coming home and sitting on the couch with my children, watching TV, playing chess, and reading them stories. This is what it was all about. I told my wife I wouldn’t do this again, and she told me I would if I had to because I didn’t quit things.

On Nov. 16, I received an email. The subject line said, “ABE exam results” and the message read “see attachments”. The pdf was titled “Mallik”. The first word: congratulations. I had done it; I had passed the oral exam, and I was now a Diplomate. It felt like I was dreaming. Never had I envisioned this was possible, but it was, and I did it.

I went from being a resident saying, “Who needs the boards anyway?” to a practitioner of almost twenty years who is proud to be a Diplomate of the American Board of Endodontics. I have never been a fan of the expression, “I don’t have time,” because in life I truly believe there are no limitations to what one can achieve. For those of us in practice who never did the boards for whatever reason, don’t regret it. Just give it a go. Give it all you can and don’t look back.

According to the AAE and ABE, 28 percent of endodontists are board certified. Of all the dental specialties, we have one of the lowest percentages of Board-certified professionals, yet we and oral surgeons were the only dental practitioners that were permitted to stay open and see patients throughout the coronavirus pandemic. We are important and respected, especially in times of need. We as a whole need to do more to make our light shine brightly. Becoming Board-certified is part of what we collectively need to strive for.

I practice now with a different mindset—one that considers the situation and options, validates treatment plans with supporting literature, and advises patients on what is best for them with confidence and conscientiousness. I am representing the specialty of endodontics at the highest level.

I try to smile a lot, but I smile more now as a Diplomate. I know I am giving my patients the highest level of care they could ask for, and it feels good.

For those of you who, like me, have been practicing for a while, consider taking the challenge. Have no ego. Find a mentor or mentors and stick with them. Positive and negative constructive criticism will come your way, but it is all for the best outcome.

Dr. Keiser and I are now colleagues and friends, too. I made a great friend along the way and could not have done it without his support and guidance. I can’t wait to visit him in his retirement and go fishing.

Listen to the advice you are given. We all do wonderful, complex work with beautiful results, but nothing is perfect. We are always working towards this, both in our clinical practice and within ourselves. The case portfolio will be corrected and corrected and corrected by whomever you choose to review and critique it. Do not be overwhelmed or angry with this. Realize that critical observation only makes us better.

For the oral exam, take as many mock exams as you can and practice with your patients. The lovely thing about being in private practice is that we have an endless supply of potential board scenarios. Of the cases that were presented to me, there was nothing I was not confident of treating if that case showed up in my practice the next morning. Don’t think that being in practice for many years equals success on this exam without preparation. It doesn’t. I must say the examiners are on our side. This was so apparent to me during the process. They want us to succeed. Preparing for each step is different and requires a different focus. I suppose that is what the board examines us on. It is a rite of passage.

My biggest challenge in all of this was overcoming my nerves and the intimidation I felt having not been in the academic environment for so long. Many of you can relate to me when I say that being in solo private practice is like being on an island, but it doesn’t mean you don’t have what it takes. You do.

One of my three daughters has a diagnosed learning difference and ADD. This adventure of mine was, in part, to let her know that nothing is impossible. I’m more than halfway through my career and now a Diplomate. This will make the rest of my career the best it could ever be.

A. K. Bobby Mallik, DMD
BS University of South Florida 1992
DMD University of Pennsylvania 1997
Certificate in Endodontics University of Iowa 2003
Diplomate, American Board of Endodontics 2021