Feature: Chasing their dream

By Jennifer Parraga, BA’93

Curious, passionate and fascinated by human anatomy and biology, Dr. Natasha Holder always had her heart set on becoming a dentist. She had the grades, did her career research well in advance and worked hard during high school and undergraduate studies.

Ironically, it was during a first-year dentistry lecture that she began to rethink her career path.

“I had a lecture on facial trauma,” she said. “One of the oral and maxillofacial surgeons was teaching about his work and I realized that’s what I wanted to do.”

First, she would have to complete her dentistry degree and then find a program where she felt confident she would thrive. After spending a week at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, she knew Western was the right program for her.

“I set up some shadowing opportunities and really loved the program at Western,” Dr. Holder said. “I knew after spending at week in London and meeting the surgeons and seeing how they worked, that this was what I needed to do.”

The Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery (OMFS) program is not for the faint at heart. It is a six-year program that requires the completion of three training programs - a Doctor of Medicine, a Master of Science in Pathology and a surgical residency.

Established at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry in 2007, the Program admits one outstanding student who meets the admission standards for surgical residency, medical school and graduate training to join five colleagues to begin an outstanding learning experience.

“Our students are the one-percenters in the academic standing of Canadian dental schools. More importantly, their passion for the specialty and their unwavering pursuit of excellence allow them to excel and thrive in OMFS, medicine and all the surgical specialties they are exposed to through electives,” said Dr. Joe Armstrong, Program Director.

Schulich Medicine & Dentistry’s program is unique in its offering of a regional experience in London and Windsor. Dr. Armstrong says this brings a more diverse and extensive population base to serve and a richer team of consultants with training from various centres in Canada and the United States.

The six residents across the six years of the program form a cohesive unit, as they move through the intense program.

Dr. Holder is an OMFS PGY2 resident, and became a member of Medicine Class of 2024 this September. It is in their second year that residents begin their medical school studies and they do so while still working in the oral surgery clinic at the hospital, being on service and being on call 10 days a month, evenings and weekends, as well as continuing with their master’s research program.

Proud of her dental training and her foundational knowledge, Dr. Holder believes that her four years of medical school will be critical to better understanding her patients as a whole and strengthening her delivery of care as a maxillofacial surgeon.

“Our specialty is unique,” she said. “We deal with various medically compromised patients and people who are in acute trauma, and having the medical foundation is crucial.”

Having already completed one professional, health-focused degree working closely with patients, Dr. Holder will bring great insight to her medical school class and provide a unique perspective.

“I have an understanding of the work load and the organization skills needed to complete such an intense degree and I can speak from experience and provide advice and insight,” she said. “A few of my classmates have already reached out to me.”

Dr. Ji Hyun Han is a former classmate of Dr. Holder and a PGY1 OMFS resident. While Dr. Han’s path to the Program was different than Dr. Holder's, she’s equally enthusiastic about what the next six years will bring.

As a first-year resident, Dr. Han’s days are filled with seeing patients in the city’s hospital clinics and operating rooms, attending seminars and the Principles of Surgery course with all incoming PGY1 medical surgical residents, participating in journal clubs, working on surgical techniques with her fellow surgical residents and focusing on getting her research project started.

Arriving in London during the pandemic, Dr. Han was grateful to her fellow residents who provided her with early access to an apartment, brought her groceries and encouraged her as she socially isolated during her first few weeks in London.

“The residents and attending physicians are amazing and treat everyone like family,” she said.

Both residents are pragmatic about the rigours of the Program.

“The six years are going to pass by anyway,” said Dr. Holder. “I may as well be chasing my dream and doing something that I’m passionate about.”

Dr. Han agrees and says that she just takes it day by day.

Their drive doesn’t diminish their belief that finding balance is a key ingredient to being successful. For Dr. Holder, that’s golf and spending time with family and friends. Newer to London, Dr. Han has enjoyed exploring the hiking trails and sampling take out menus at local restaurants.

Meanwhile, they are both channeling their passion for the program into unofficial ambassador roles.

Dr. Holder hopes to inspire more women to consider the profession.

“When I was in dental school, I knew of only one female oral and maxillofacial surgeon, and while it is changing, it’s important to me to show other women in dentistry that there is a place for us here and that we can make great surgeons,” she said. “They can’t be us, if they can’t see us."

“We’re a friendly bunch,” said Dr. Han. “If anyone is interested in learning more about the program or has questions about the profession they can reach out to us.”