Alaskan experience inspires student to attend dental school

Alaskan encounters leads student to dental medicine career.

Heath Moody always intended to go to medical school after graduating from the University of Georgia, but he knew he wasn’t quite ready.

“If someone passed out in class, all I knew to do was dial 9-1-1,” he said. “And at 23, I was just mature enough to know I wasn’t mature enough.”

His desire for a break led him to Alaska, where his plans for a six-month outdoor adventure turned into a six-year odyssey that would eventually lead him to the GHSU College of Dental Medicine.

Moody, a second-year dental student, initially worked at the visitors’ center at Denali National Park, where he shuttled tourists through portions of the vast and majestic landscape. He spent his free time on the prowl, hunting Dall sheep, mountain goats, moose, caribou and blacktail deer. But he didn’t give up his goal of a career in medicine; he was fascinated by the profession ever since he underwent an emergency nephrectomy stemming from a childhood playground accident. And reading medical journals during long, cold winter nights wasn’t going to cut it.

So he obtained an emergency medical technician’s license and moved to Talkeetna, a town of fewer than 800 people situated between Denali and Anchorage, where he bought land and built a cabin.

“Well, I hired a friend who knew what he was doing to boss me around while we built the cabin,” Moody says.

He spent the next few years answering medical emergency calls in an area so sparsely populated that he was often the only person in a three-hour radius with any advanced medical knowledge. The nearest medical center was a plane ride away in
Anchorage.

Moody loved his EMT job, and he found a way to turn his passion for hunting into a business by running big-game expeditions for tourists. However, the climate was beginning to wear on him.

“After five full winters, the Southern boy came out in me and I was like, ‘All right, been there, done that,’” Moody said.

It happened that his last hunting client was Dr. Michael E. Darling, an Anchorage dentist with whom he spent 17 days on an excursion that stretched across the Alaskan peninsula.

“I told him that I wanted to work with my hands, to help people and that I have a genuine concern for patients. He said, ‘What you described is not medical, it’s all dental.’ He just completely sold me on the idea,” Moody said.

Because Alaska has no dental school, Moody decided to move back to his home state of Georgia and re-establish residency. In the meantime, he took a job as a Fayette County firefighter, where he was able to put his EMT skills to use.

He met his wife, Amy, then a cardiovascular surgery nurse at Emory Medical Center, through his mother’s best friend.

“After my mom’s best friend unsuccessfully tried to set her son up with her, I was the next best option,” he said, with a laugh.

After a year back in Georgia, he was accepted to the GHSU College of Dental Medicine, where he is now in his second year. At first, he assumed his real-world medical experience would come in handy. But it wasn’t until his second-year physiology class that his unique background came to light.

“Everyone’s going, ‘Shhh! Shhh!’ but I used to do this in the back of a moving ambulance in downtown Atlanta traffic with the siren going,” he said, with a shrug.

Moody says classes are providing him with the underlying knowledge of many conditions he’s already seen as a first responder, giving him a unique perspective.

“I know the end product. I know how it’s going to matter,” he said. “Do I know what’s happening on a cellular level? Maybe not. But I know how it manifests. I know what the signs are. I know how these people present themselves.”

He anticipates working with patients will come naturally to him, as it did when he worked under more stressful conditions.

“I’ve walked into a room of 10 people – and one of them is dead – and I’ve had to look at them and say, ‘I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do,” Moody said. “Basically, there’s nothing a patient’s going to say or do that is going to freak me out. When you’re dealing with death, seeing patients in a dental lab won’t even raise my blood pressure.”

And if it does, he still owns the cabin in Talkeetna.

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