PROFILE: DR MONICA BERNINGHAUS
Like so many dentists, Monica Berninghaus is an overachiever. Bold and curious by nature, she never even set out to become a dentist — it was all something of an accident. Likewise, she’s not from a military family, per se, though her dad did serve in WWII — yet, this past June she retired from the Navy after a career in dentistry spanning 21 years. 1983, Berninghaus was working on her pharmacy degree at the The Ohio State University, pulling late nights doing work as a pharmacy intern toward her license. As luck or fate would have it, the pharmacist she was working with was studying to be a dentist, and Monica, ever curious, would read his text books and review his labs, and she liked what she saw — the science of dentistry appealed to her. Still, she was on course to become a pharmacist, and chose to complete her studies. Then, a year later, while finishing up her last year of pharmacy school, a young woman hired to work the cash register at another pharmacy in the same shopping center where Berninghaus worked was shot and killed during a robbery attempt because she didn’t know the safe combination. She recalls, “We had no security, there was no button to push — nothing. I thought about whether or not this was something I wanted to do the rest of my life. Sometimes we worked work short days, other days we stood on our feet for 13 hours without a break.” Also, though the pay was good, Berninghaus remembers bristling at the way some nurses and physicians treated pharmacists, even in the hospital setting. After a year in Cleveland working as a pharmacist, she decided to go back to Ohio State to study dentistry. She was able to put herself through dental school while working as a part-time pharmacist. Looking back, she found the didactic part of pharmacy school more difficult than dental school, though she comments that, “In dental school you have to manage your time better — you have to set up patient appointments and do all your lab work in addition to your studies.” But she figured that dentistry was a better match for many aptitudes honed in school and in life — her people skills, her excellent chemistry scores while in pharmacy school, even things her mother taught her —needlepoint and sewing. “Without meaning to, my Mom set in motion an attention to detail and an ability that is imperative in dentistry. Because of what she taught me, I love working with my hands and have the excellent hand skills that a career in dentistry requires.” And, while she briefly considered following in her older sister’s footsteps and becoming a physician, (her sister, the first in her family to go to college, is a neurologist in Lakewood, Wash.), their on-call schedule wasn’t appealing. Berninghaus says, “While dentists also work fast-paced and busy days and respond to patient’s emergency needs, I found the intricacies of the practice of dentistry more appealing.” Berninghaus got her first exposure to the “military machine” in dental school, as many of her instructors were retired military from all different branches — Army, Air Force and Navy, but they shared a commonality of life and a breadth of experience. She respected and admired the camaraderie among them. They were intelligent and good-natured, and easily shared shortcuts and tricks of the trade that made something like a difficult denture set-up less daunting. And then there were the “sea stories” — of careers, and tales of travels to remote exotic locales. And, in a recruitment trip to the Pensacola Naval Air Station she met an active duty endodontist, Capt Jim Frazier, who took time to show her around the base, and explained the workings of the Navy Dental Corps. It was all such an overwhelmingly positive experience that, despite the fact that none of the military branches offered scholarships then, she chose the Navy as her future career path and was commissioned her junior year of dental school. “”I had no relatives that were dentists whose practice I could join, and really wanted to see the world!”, she said. “Today,” Berninghaus says, “With only a three-year commitment you can get a lot of your dental school bills paid through one of the numerous scholarships available. Those didn’t exist when I was a dental student.” She fell under “The 1925 I program”, which meant she was an Ensign in the reserves, got her ID, but wasn’t expected to report to active duty until she had completed her studies. Upon graduation, she was commissioned as an active duty Lieutenant in the Navy Dental Corps, and was off to a 6-week boot camp for officers in Newport R.I. Back then, Berninghaus was on the hook for four years, and after boot camp, she hit the ground running at her first duty station, Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton, 45 minutes north of San Diego. She was one of 22 new dental graduates in the top 20 percent of their class academically accepted into the General Practice Residency program. The one-year program was a plum assignment — “The on-the-job training there was just amazing,” said Berninghaus, “We got to do all the emergency room stuff, all the head and neck trauma. We didn’t have any oral surgery residents, so we got to work right with the oral surgeons and had an opportunity to learn things we might not have ever learned in years. When you first get out of dental school you don’t know it all, and you’re not super quick with the handpiece. But because of the way clinics are configured in the Navy, you can gain a breadth of experience quickly.” From there, Berninghaus bundled up and headed to Naval Air Station, Adak, Alaska — one of the Aleutian Islands— as part of a standard of balance in Navy assignments. “While your detailer (assignment officer) will not readily admit it, ” Berninghaus says with a wink, “Whenever you do advanced training you owe them a payback, so they usually send you someplace considered less than desirable.” In Adak, “It rained all the time, it was windy all the time, and you could blink your eyes and there would be a white-out. There was one paved road, and even a McDonalds!” Still, Adak was not without its charms. With only 5,500 people stationed there, everyone had to get along. It was in Adak that Berninghaus got her first real sense of what the “military family” was all about. There was great caribou hunting, good salmon fishing, and the beauty of the tundra, wildflowers, and the terrain was inescapable, white outs notwithstanding. It’s also where Berninghaus met and married her now ex-husband, a SeaBee stationed there as a civil engineer. While her husband was transferred to Gulfport, Miss., Berninghaus had to stay in Adak to finish her tour there for an additional year without him — one of the hardships of military duty. She’s pragmatic about though, and clear that while not optimal, it’s part of the deal. “Everyone complains about it, but if you’re going to be in the military you’re going to be away from your family eventually, whether it’s a six month ship deployment or a year in Adak. Just because you’re married doesn’t mean you get to cut your duty station short - you still have to fulfill your obligation. As hard as the Navy tries to keep active duty dual military couples co-located, many military marriages crumble due to long and frequent separations, especially in times of war.” In 21 years, on two ships, a tour with the Marines, overseas, and two advanced dental residencies, she never saw any real combat duty. That is not uncommon for Navy dentists, who, other than corpsman travelling with Marines, rarely see front line action. They traditionally either work on a military base, Naval hospital, shipboard, or at a remote camp setup performing nearly all emergency trauma dentistry (usually with the Marines or SeaBees). In addition, while deployed they do their fair share of community relations or COMREL projects, like building schools, doing immunizations, or taking care of emergent needs of indigent communities where they’re stationed. In larger clinics, Berninghaus had the opportunity to work with and learn from dental specialists — who were often working just across the hall — to ask for assistance or a second opinion. The Navy also offers advanced training in all of the dental specialties, whether Navy trained at Bethesda, Mary., or at outservice programs at universities statewide. Berninghaus completed a two-year advanced general dentistry residency Comprehensive Dentistry program while stationed at Bethesda, receiving her Master’s degree. Later in her career, while stationed at smaller clinics or aboard ship, Berninghaus found herself facing many of the challenges that the specialists in larger clinics handled —and by virtue of her experience and advanced training, she was capable of handling the cases. A typical day for her in a state-side clinic usually included sick call for dental emergencies, followed by eight to ten patients, with each given about an hour of time that had to include set up, providing treatment, and cleanup. More complicated procedures were generally allotted more time. Each dentist was expected to meet rigid CTV (clinical time value goals) set forth by the Navy, and most did, unless they were new graduates. CTVs varied depending on the type of dentistry you were performing, so general dentists and oral surgeons would have different performance goals. While aboard ship however, things were quite different, where 14-hour clinical days were not uncommon, due to a larger patient population, fewer dentists, and an ever-changing schedule due to ships movement. So now what? This June, Berninghaus retired from the Navy and was hired by Bright Now Dental, where she will be the lead dentist in their new Silverdale location. The large clinic model appealed to Berninghaus — in part because as a single mom of two teenagers, buying a practice at the time wasn’t feasible, but also because it’s her “comfort zone”. It feels a lot like the military with several practitioners and all the specialties. But that’s not the only reason — even with all her experience and her advanced dental training, Berninghaus found there weren’t a lot of local associateships available in a smaller community setting like Silverdale because of the downturn in the economy. Looking back, what was it she liked and disliked about the Navy? What did she learn about herself? “I learned that I’m a lot tougher than I thought I was — the first time the ship pulled away and I watched my family disappear, I really got that sense of ‘Haze, gray and underway’ and that sinking feeling that I’d be gone for a long time — but I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.” She continues, saying, “And although the military might not have all of the cutting edge state of the art equipment — lasers, for instance — no one ever receives sub-standard care. The on-the-job training I got was unbelievable”. She’s very proud to say she served in the Navy, and she’s going to miss it. But she’s on to her next assignment, and she’ll attack it with the same gusto that she has had facing every challenge in her life.