Few people run triathlons, or have qualified for the Olympic trials. Even fewer of those are women, but WSDA member Dr. Linda Edgar did all of that in the 80s — and had it not been for an accident while training for the Hawaii Ironman, she might still be running today. The drive and perseverance that Linda harnessed throughout her life has carried her through both triumph and personal loss to where she is today — a successful dentist who has practiced for 22 years with her husband, Bryan, and is now poised to become president of the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD) — the second-largest dental association in the country.
For Linda, a hard working, no-nonsense type with a surprising, self-deprecating sense of humor and an easy laugh, the road hasn’t always been paved with opportunity. In the 70s, when she first thought of attending medical school, she remembers that, “…very few people were encouraging women. There’s been a huge movement of women in healthcare, medicine and dentistry since then. But I was fortunate, because Bryan always championed me.”
The Edgars started dating in high school and later attended UW together – Bryan pre-dent, Linda pre-med, and they struck a deal — once she graduated, they would marry and Linda would work and put Bryan through dental school. When his practice was underway, she would attend medical school. In the end, It wouldn’t be quite so easy — as Edgar says, “Life happens when you’re busy making other plans.” She got her teaching degree, and began teaching math and science while studying for her masters at night. Bryan was a 4th year in dental school when the couple faced the first of two personal tragedies — they lost a child early in pregnancy. Nine months later, after the couple had relocated to Ft. Riley in Kansas where Bryan was completing a two-year residency, the couple lost yet another child under the same circumstances. With starting a family on hold, Edgar recalibrated, and began to apply to both medical and dental schools a few months later.
A few months later in 1977, Bryan was doing an anesthesia rotation when a young woman, just 19 and nine months pregnant, presented at the hospital and told staff she wanted to give her child up for adoption. She was due in 24 hours. Linda, who calls the unfolding narrative “miraculous,” remembers, “Without even applying to adopt, we were blessed with a three-day old newborn.” Once again, she put her dream of attending dental school on hold, recalling, “This was the 70s, very few women were in dental school and no one had a baby. So I taught, which allowed me to be both a mother and still work.”
Her competitive spirit
When her son was 3, she started running for fun, and a friend later encouraged her to enter her first race. She ran her first 10K in 51 minutes, and continued to improve — increasing her mileage and adding speed workouts to her regimen. Three years later, she would run an average of 107 miles a week while continuing to race, entering some 45 marathons, and winning almost as much money running as she made teaching. Edgar later set the record in the Seattle Marathon and qualified to run in the 1984 Olympic Trials—the first woman’s marathon—but she had pulled her Achilles training to qualify for the trials. In 1987, while doing the Penticton Ironman in Canada to train for the Hawaii Ironman, Edgar crashed on her bike, splitting her helmet and breaking her ribs. Her running days were over. Bryan, her biggest supporter, encouraged her to get back in the game and apply to dental school.
The university and beyond
She was immediately accepted and began dental school in 1988, when son David was 11. In her third year, Bryan got called up for active duty for Desert Storm — it was a tough time. She remembers, “I went from being a teacher of honors chemistry and knowing all the answers on the tests to being a mom and dental student and not knowing any of the answers. My son became a teenager — which is always a tricky time in a child’s life, and I was commuting a long distance to the University. I remember wanting to quit every Friday.” She didn’t though – it simply isn’t in her DNA. Bryan’s commitment to Desert Storm was short —just a year — and she finished her studies a year after his return. Soon after, she joined Byran’s general practice. Linda says she’s never wanted to specialize – she likes the diversity of training she’s gotten as a general dentist (some 2,500 hours of CDE, and counting), and says, “I do some orthodontics, and I do oral surgery — Bryan places implants, so I don’t. The nice thing about general dentistry is that you can bring somebody in whose mouth is in chaos, and take them from start to finish — even if they need ortho — and really make a difference in their life. As a specialist, you don’t really have that. I have patients who have been with me for 22 years who came to me at age five, and now they’re adults. That’s pretty special.”
More than dentistry
As you might imagine, a person with Edgar’s drive would likely not be satisfied with her roles as wife, mother, and dentist alone, and to that end she began participating in organized dentistry 22 years ago, forging opportunities for women in particular. She reveals, “I realize now that being a role model is still important, even though fifty percent of graduating dental classes are now women. While our world is becoming less gender sensitive, it continues to be imperative to spread the message that you need to look at the person, not the gender.”
Edgar mentors women dental students, encouraging them to come to the practice to see what they’re doing — she also invites them to call or email her with questions. “There’s no reason why a woman can’t buy a practice,” says Edgar, noting that women dentists still face some gender-related hurdles, “There’s still a cultural bias that suggests women will work less to accommodate having children. To that I say look at the Carrie Yorks of the world! In Washington and elsewhere, there are a growing number of women who are very successful — often producing more than their male counterparts — because they have husbands willing to stay at home in a more traditionally female role. How wonderful is that? It may still only have limited acceptability in society, but that’s changing.” And while there still may be much work left to do to achieve gender neutrality, Linda is a determined ally, “If you want to be an engineer or a mechanical engineer, don’t let someone tell you that women can’t do that. They told me that when I wanted to be a doctor, and I didn’t let that stop me. Look at the ADA,” she notes, “In 150 years they’ve only had two women presidents – and there are a lot of smart women. And yes, it’s a little scary to be moving into this position as President — I know that I will be more scrutinized because I am a woman — I stick out. But I also know that if you ask me to do something, I’ll give 100 percent. I’m personal, genuine and authentic, and I think people respond to that.”
Proud service with AGD
Other then her commitment to mentoring women, Edgar is passionate about the work AGD has done, and continues to do, to make room at the table for dental students saying, “We have about 38,000 members and we’re growing — unlike many other organizations — because we have established a very special relationship with ASDA. They’re tremendous, and we’re excited to give them a voice early in their career. It’s important to involve the new generation, and to that end we have local representation of students on our state board.”
A national agenda
Nationally, her roles in both the AGD and ADA have given her entrée to the world of D.C. policy-makers, allowing her to get her message to even more influential ears. And, while some of organized dentistry’s most pressing issues — midlevel providers, dwindling insurance reimbursements, and student debt — seem to be reaching their zenith, she’s unfazed. “I think what’s most rewarding about serving at this level is that if you can make a difference, now’s the time. If we’re going to continue to exist as family practices, we’re going to have to be more efficient. And both AGD and ADA are working on practice management issues — It is imperative that ADA and AGD work together to help dentists be efficient and profitable in their practices while still retaining excellence. We just came back from Washington, D.C.,” she says, “And while I was there, I talked with the representatives with the Department of Education — and while I’m not sure that will make a difference, it has made me want to contact Michelle Obama about brushing and nutrition programs in the schools.” With Dr. Linda Edgar’s track record and dogged determination, we’re guessing the First Lady will take the call.