Dr. Moinca remembered, “…They completely detached my top and bottom jaw from my skull, moved [them] forward, and reattached [them] with metal hardware – titanium plates and screws… I wasn’t so much nervous about the surgery as I was excited to hopefully fix what was wrong.”
Every day in the office, Dr. Monica works with patients to restore and maintain their teeth and overall oral health. Most commonly, she’s completing the work necessary for fillings, crowns, root canals, and additional procedures. Each of these three, she’s had performed multiple times by other dentists in her own mouth.
And when she hears patients talk about some form of dental anxiety, she goes out of her way to calm their nerves with facts, reassurances, and the kind of confidence that comes from only someone whose been in their shoes and gone through the exact procedure… multiple times over.
In fact, dentistry and oral surgery were one of the most important things to impact her life – even well before she ever knew she’d one day be performing these same procedures on her patients.
They Broke Your Dentist’s Jaw – Trust Me, She Gets it
Dr. Monica’s mouth didn’t start out with all of this work needing to be done. In fact, her parents made it a point to get her to the dentist’s office every six months and as a result, aside from one cavity at age 10, her routine checkups were pretty nondescript.
And while she sported braces for a couple of years between 6th and 8th grades, Dr. Monica was pretty pleased with how her oral health was progressing at a young age.
That steady progress was interrupted at age 17 when Dr. Monica was diagnosed with sleep apnea
Her sleep apnea diagnosis came complete with a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine. And while she was able to tolerate it for a few months the thought of sleeping with a CPAP for the rest of her life if she didn’t need to wasn’t the ideal situation.
So Dr. Monica and her parents set out on a quest to find out if any alternative solutions were out there. They learned that most people were diagnosed with sleep apnea because of either being overweight, in poor health, or with large tonsils. But that wasn’t the case for Dr. Monica.
“My jaw was what we call retrognathic, which is where jaw sits back a little too far. Most people have about 10-12mm between the back of their tongue and the back of their throat. Mine was only 1-2mm.”
The more they learned through research the more it made sense that Dr. Monica continuously had the feeling that she would choke while eating or had difficulty swallowing pills. She would wake up after “sleeping” for over 8 hours but didn’t at all feel rested.
Well, more research and a specialist referral would start to provide hope that a permanent fix did exist
“We were referred to an oral surgeon at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota who said that if we moved my jaw forward enough, that should likely fix my sleep apnea and mean I wouldn’t need to sleep with a CPAP machine anymore.
The problem with just moving the lower jaw forward though would mean that in the end, nothing would line up. So, if they would decide to move forward, both the upper and lower jaws would need to be “moved”…
Dr. Monica remembered that there was another twist in there, “Apparently at some point during the planning they decided I didn’t really have a chin. So they decided to give me a chin while I was in there, too.”
Preparing for this surgery marked the beginning of Dr. Monica’s first substantial visits to dental offices
“I had to have a couple of teeth removed so that everything lined up at the end of the process. I had to have braces put on for a year before the surgery. They were kept on during the surgery, then also for a year after.”
While some people may have been terrified to hear all about what needed to be done, Dr. Monica felt exactly the opposite. “I was just excited that I wouldn’t have to wear a CPAP machine forever. For those who don’t know, it’s a mask that goes over your nose while you sleep. There’s a hose that goes from the mask to a machine that’s plugged into the wall and I had to wear it every night while I slept.”
“It would constantly blow air in my nose while I slept so that my airway wouldn’t close. I used it my whole first year while I was away at college and it’s just not… ideal for a college freshman.” She also had to worry about traveling and forgetting the CPAP, or just not having it for some reason. The downside of sleeping without it could’ve meant significant negative consequences.
Good news: the surgery would hopefully mean no more CPAP. The bad news: more braces
“It’s not super cool to have braces when you’re 17… It’s cool when you’re in middle school but while going away for college – not so much. But I was just excited to get started. My mom was terrified, but I was excited.”
After the planning was done, it was time to travel back to Minnesota for the actual surgery
“They completely detached my top and bottom jaw from my skull, moved them forward, and reattached them with metal hardware – titanium plates and screws. So there was a lot going on there. Aside from the new plates and screws, I bled a lot during the surgery so I had to have a blood transfusion. They had to leave a drain in the right side of my cheek because I hadn’t stopped bleeding.”
The excitement Dr. Monica felt before the surgery turned to fear when she woke up for the first time. “I couldn’t talk. I was swollen so bad and they had splinted my teeth.”
Don’t let her be too humble, the surgeons actually told Dr. Monica that she was one of the worst swelling cases they’ve ever had. In fact, “They told me that if you ever have kids you need to tell the doctors that you bleed and swell a lot…”
She stayed in the hospital for about a week following surgery just to get back to a state that she could travel home. And that brought with it it’s own challenges.
“The TSA lady at the airport told me that she couldn’t tell that it was me from my picture and almost didn’t let me fly home. I was really swollen and had black eyes and that whole process really upset me.”
“I was 19 at that time, just recovering from this massive surgery that would change my life forever, and completely vulnerable. That TSA lady crushed me.”
But making it through the TSA checkpoint didn’t mean that the challenges were over – they just changed in form
“I found that you can put just about anything into a blender…” Dr. Monica remembered.
“I have patients all the time who tell me they can’t eat because they need teeth. Yes. it is much easier to eat with teeth, but I found that you will not starve. My teeth were wired shut for a few weeks. I remember putting taco salad, french fries, and macaroni and cheese (among other things) in a blender. It definitely didn’t look great, but it sure did taste good.”
Dr. Monica had significant swelling for many months following surgery and even had some residual swelling over a year afterward. There were other changes, too.
Those routine dental visits that had been in and out prior to her surgery, started getting a little more colorful. “I can’t blame these things completely on that surgery. I do have some inherent conditions with my teeth that contributed to some of my needed restorations.”
“I had 3 root canals, 3 crowns, multiple fillings done all within a year or so after my surgery”
This experience left a huge impression on Dr. Monica in many ways. It changed the way she’d be able to live her life going forward. And it also gave her a big window into a brand new world.
“I had seen so many dentists and specialists during this whole time period that then is when I became interested in dentistry. The thing that really hooked me into the profession was seeing all of these different doctors in different states and specialties work together for me – to change my life. I knew then that this is what I’d love to do for someone else.”
Another important experience for Dr. Monica took place when she needed to get a retreat root canal completed on one of the teeth worked on by a specialist. “It showed me that even specialists have things come up. It’s nothing that they did, per se, but sometimes things just come up when working with teeth that we didn’t expect. That really helps me explain things and relate to my patients in these situations.”
Did she ever fear needles in her mouth?
“I’ve had so many shots that it’s really insignificant now… We have a lot of patients with anxiety around shots in their mouths or preparing to have a root canal or get a crown that my experiences truly help us both in those situations.”
“Because I’ve had 3 root canals now and a retreat, 3 crowns, braces multiple times, 6 teeth extracted, major jaw surgery, and more shots than I can count – I’ve experienced just about anything I’m putting my patients through. I know how it feels and what we can do to make it better for them, and looking back on it now I’m glad to have had those experiences.”
This experience set Dr. Monica on a path that allows her to do the work she loves today
A year after her extensive recovery, Dr. Monica transferred to Kent State University where she met her husband Mike, graduated a year after that and then began attending dental school at Ohio State University. She built on her experiences as a patient with the knowledge gained in school and it is that combination of training and experience that she calls upon to best treat her patients today.
When she says that she knows how it feels, trust me – she does. But it doesn’t stop there – now she also knows what needs to be done to make it better.