What I Learned from Dr. Kerby

Becoming a dentist requires, at a minimum, 8 years of education after high school. Typically, this involves four years at an undergraduate university, where most people major and minor in the sciences- biology, organic chemistry, human anatomy. Then comes four years at a dental school, where the sciences are reinforced and expanded. Students are also taught the principles and theory of modern dentistry, and then develop the skills to put these theories in practice. All told, over those eight years, I must have had over 200 different teachers in nearly as many subjects. Most did a good job, and a few were actually great. Very few were exceptional.

Dr. Kerby was exceptional.

I recently discovered that my fixed prosthedontics (crowns)  instructor has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. He just finished teaching his last course at the Ohio State University College of dentistry, and has subsequently retired to prepare for the next, final stage of his life. This has been met with an outpouring of support from students, faculty, staff, patients- nearly anyone who has known Dr. Kerby in any capacity has been affected by this news. To understand why, it helps to have a little back story about how many of us got to know him.

The first few days and weeks of dental school, a lot gets thrown at the students. We all have varied undergraduate experiences, and although everyone has a solid academic background, the sheer volume of material that awaits a new student in dental school is staggering. On top of a thorough review of human anatomy, histology, biochemistry, many of us were thrust in embryology for the first time, as well as neuroanatomy, physiology, and several other subjects to which we previously may have had little experience. There is also a wealth of brand new topics- dental materials, oral pathology, operative dentistry, it’s a lot to take in. However, much of this falls into the realm of studying and bookwork, to which we were pretty much accustomed, so that transition wasn’t devastating.

Try giving all these exhausted bookworms a drill that runs at 400,000 RPMs, a diamond bit, a plastic tooth, and teach them how to shape that plastic tooth into a different shape entirely, to the tenth of a millimeter, with a taper of precisely 6 degrees, often by looking only at a reflection of what they were actually working on. Try teaching them to become masters at this. Try holding them to a standard where a scratch on the nearby tooth is failure, 0.3 mm of excess drilling is failure, four degrees in one direction, or the other, is failure. Try doing this, and succeeding almost 100% of the time, and somehow have them love you for holding them to a nearly impossible standard.

That was the body of Dr. Kerby’s work as a dental educator. He was the wake up call to all bleary-eyed OSU dental students that they can’t just be good students, they needed to become artists and technicians. They needed to be precise and consistent, and they would not be allowed to come near a patient until they had gone through the fire of his course series. He did this by giving us the tools and the instructions, and by turning us loose to butcher hundreds of plastic teeth until we felt we owed the manufacturers of those teeth an apology. And after every botched crown preparation, he would sit with us and review what we did wrong, what angles were incorrect, whether we were having a problem visualizing the end result or if our technique to get there was the problem. He would come in after hours, on weekends, well past 8 p.m. when most of the other faculty was long gone.  Insurmountable problems were solved by repetition, focus, attention to details until we all improved. I never saw anyone left behind.

He wasn’t shy about failing people. He would tell you when your best wasn’t good enough. Most of the time, we already knew that it wasn’t good enough, and wanted to get better. Most of us didn’t have the big picture yet- we weren’t necessarily envisioning our careers or helping patients when we were trying to shave plastic teeth into perfect forms at midnight on Sundays. More than anything, I think we didn’t want to let Dr. Kerby down.

So we all practiced, and we all got better. And we all transitioned into junior and senior dental students, and we excelled on our practical board exams with Dr. Kerby’s voice ringing in our heads. “I want smooth transitional line angles.” “Let’s see some even, planar reduction while maintaining your occlusal anatomy” And then we became doctors, and many of us still hear his voice in our heads while we prepare teeth for crowns, and as we hold ourselves to his high (but no longer impossible) standards.

Thanks for everything, Dr. Kerby. And to all of the exceptional teachers like him, who have helped me and my peers along our way.

Jason Coliadis DDS