Throughout the pandemic, dental resident Dr. Matthew Lee said that he gained experience more valuable than money at the NYU Langone Health Clinic in Winslow, Arizona. His dental residency and patient interaction there reaffirmed the original reason he selected dentistry as a profession.

Dr. Lee grew up watching his mom at work in her dental practice. He was never particularly interested in pursuing her craft, though, until he saw a patient crying.

“I was shocked. She was crying tears of joy. My mother had restored the woman’s smile.”

Dr. Matthew Lee, on the childhood experience of seeing his mother, also a dentist, affect positive change in the life of a patient

It was then that the younger Lee began viewing dentistry as an opportunity to provide care both for a patient’s oral — and mental — health.

“Self-confidence is so important to mental health. Your smile plays a huge role in that.” Lee’s dental journey began there and continued across the country to Massachusetts.

While pursuing his dental degree at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, Lee made the first of two professional ventures to Arizona. There, at the Winslow Indian Health Care Center, he completed an externship .

“As an extern, I was rotating to other clinics in the area and learning from different specialists,” Lee said. “Once or twice a month a specialist would come to the clinic and I had the opportunity to learn from each one.”

Following his graduation, Lee matched into a dental medicine postdoctoral residency program at NYU Langone. He returned to Winslow with the intent of gaining speed with procedures and additional exposure.

“I was considering going straight to work, but … the (residency) experience is far more important than the money.”

Matthew Lee, DMD

During the pandemic, the Winslow Clinic has sustained an influx of patients, which, for Dr. Lee, has presented additional learning opportunities.

“In a group practice setting, I can see a variety of patients, and different treatment plans,” Lee said. “But also think about what is realistic for a patient. It’s led me to think outside the box.”

The most difficult part of working at the clinic, as he sees it, has been convincing people to return for treatment. “Some patients will say they’ll come back tomorrow, but they don’t come back for a few years,” he said. “We try to emphasize the importance of dental care for our patients.”

Although interested in public health, Dr. Lee feels that private practice back home in Seattle, Washington is best for him.

“My plan now is to work part time with my mom, and part time at another practice,” he said. “My mom is now my colleague, but she’s still my mom. I should be working somewhere else as well.”

No matter where he practices, Dr. Matthew Lee remains fascinated by the potential for dentistry to serve as a life-changing experience for patients.

“As a dentist, you’re not only treating patients. You’re building (their) confidence,” Lee said. “Medical doctors don’t have that ability. That’s why I chose dentistry.”