Whenever Dr. Doug Damm leaves his University of Kentucky Oral Pathology Laboratory and comes to the greater Cincinnati area to offer a continuing education opportunity, I do my best to be in attendance. As an Oral and Maxillofacial Pathologist, Dr. Damm is an authority on identifying and prescribing treatment for pathologies of the head and neck area.
At the dental office my team and I see certain forms of pathology every single day, things like dental caries (cavities) and periodontal (gum) disease for example. But there are other pathologies of the head and neck that are much more obscure, rarely seen and potentially difficult to properly diagnose. This is where the services of someone like Dr. Damm are essential.
Let’s take a minute to dissect (pun intended) the word “pathology”. Within the medical realm pathology is an unhealthy condition, a form of disease. And a pathologist, like Dr. Damm, studies the signs and symptoms of assorted unhealthy conditions.
But there is another side to the word pathology. Quite literally the word pathology stems from two Greek root words, pathos (suffering) and logia (study). Pathology in a literal sense is the study of suffering.
In the February 2017 issue of ODA (Ohio Dental Association) Today, guest columnist Kerry K. Carney, DDS writes about this study of suffering. “The early investigators,” she writes, “would have relied on noninvasive, gross observational examination. But by the 15th century, the Italian physician Antonio Benivieni used postmortem dissection and examination to determine cause of death. By 1761, Giovanni Morgagni published a work that described more than 600 autopsies. Though normal anatomy had been well-established by this time, Morgagni’s work was groundbreaking because he organized his findings to correlate patient symptoms or clinical findings with abnormal autopsy results. His work gave a fuller picture of the disease progression.”
There have been times across the years, while I was sitting in the audience at one of Dr. Damm’s lectures, where I found myself curious about life in the oral pathology lab. Rather quickly I would remind myself that I would seriously miss the one-on-one contact I appreciate each day with the patients who have entrusted their care to me and my team. Dr. Carney also recognized this reality, that the life of the oral pathologist “separates the suffering from the sufferer. When you look at a slide of small cell carcinoma, you do not see the mother of six who has dedicated her life to her family’s welfare and now finds herself in a battle for her life.”
And so it is that within my life as a dentist I see pathology each and every day. Most of the things we find are easily identified, explained and managed. On occasion however, I find myself sending tissue samples off to Dr. Damm for analysis and diagnosis. Once in awhile my job as a communicator of pathology is just the start of a shared lengthy path from diagnosis, treatment planning and occasional suffering. Dentistry, it turns out, is more about people than teeth.