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An Unlikely Dentist

Dr. Denise Hale speaks at the podium.

Once “petrified” of the dentist, Dr. Denise Hale ’88 is now in her 36th year of dental practice and an active leader in the profession.

Dr. Denise Hale ’88 chuckles at the thought of telling her 10-year-old self she’d someday become a dentist.

After all, Hale spent her youth petrified of the dentist, going as far as hiding under her bed to avoid dreaded trips to “the chair.” And as the daughter of a truck driver and waitress, neither of whom held a high school degree, the thought of earning an advanced college degree seemed distant and improbable.

So, on many levels, Hale admits, it was inconceivable to think she’d attend dental school and then flourish in the profession.

Fast forward a few decades, however, and Hale now savors a once-unimaginable life, directing her own general practice office, teaching aspiring dentists, and embracing leadership roles in organized dentistry to propel the profession and oral health.

Finding her way into dentistry

Hale took an unorthodox journey into dental practice.

A native of Chicago’s South Side, Hale majored in psychology at Loyola University Chicago and entered the human resources field following graduation. The corporate life quickly proved uninspiring, though, and Hale began considering a career change. Some friends from her undergraduate years had happily established themselves in various health sciences fields and Hale decided she’d follow suit.

“Science had always intrigued me,” she says.

While attending night school to complete science classes, Hale felt an unexpected pull to an unlikely career: dentistry.

“Dentistry wasn’t life or death, which I appreciated, and I always enjoyed looking at people’s teeth for some reason,” says Hale, who began her dental school studies at UIC in 1984.

Dental school immediately challenged Hale, who felt overwhelmed by foreign content and demanding coursework. Yet, she powered through, fueled by the openness of classmates – “A few of my ‘A’ classmates gave me some wonderful study tips,” she recalls. – and patience and encouragement from instructors like Dr. Charles Luptak.

“When you’re a student struggling with your confidence, having others believe in you makes a world of difference,” Hale says. “Between my classmates and instructors, I couldn’t have asked for a better support system.”

Loving private practice

After earning her DDS degree in 1988, Hale began working as an associate at a suburban Chicago dental office. A year later, the opportunity to purchase an existing practice in southwest suburban Hickory Hills emerged. The general dentistry office had a single chair, a handful of files, and a $10,000 price tag.

Hale applied for a loan at a local bank, but her student debt and lack of assets thwarted that attempt. Hale’s mother, however, stepped in and offered a $10,000 loan with no interest.

“The First Bank of Ruth,” Hale jokes.

The offer from Hale’s working-class parents represented an undeniable show of faith in their daughter and her capabilities. It also intensified Hale’s professional ambitions.

“When people believe in you to that level, it pushes you over the edge to achieve your dreams,” she says.

Hale operated the office in Hickory Hills for seven years before relocating to neighboring Palos Hills, where the practice blossomed into a thriving three-chair office.

Running her own practice afforded Hale flexibility, which she craved as a working mom raising two children, and delivered personal fulfillment that endures to this day. A self-described people person, she enjoys being with patients, learning about their lives, easing their concerns, and creating positive dental experiences.

“It’s never felt like a job,” Hale says.

An active dental professional

Beyond her private practice, Hale has worked to advance the field of dentistry as both a teacher and advocate for the profession and enhanced patient care.

In 2017, Hale returned to UIC, where she currently serves as a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Restorative Dentistry. She spends three days each week in the clinical setting and takes pride in supporting the next generation of oral health practitioners.

“I love sharing what I’ve learned with students so they can be better clinicians,” Hale says. “I need to feel I have purpose and teaching at UIC provides that.”

Hale has been deeply involved with organized dentistry as well, holding leadership positions with Dent-IL-PAC, the Illinois State Dental Society’s political action committee, as well as the Chicago Dental Society (CDS). The current CDS president-elect, Hale will assume the CDS presidency next January from fellow UIC alum, Dr. David Lewis ’81.

“Organized dentistry is where you network, find opportunities, and learn about legislation affecting your business and public health, which is why it’s so important to be involved,” she says.

Since 2009, Hale’s participated in Dental Lifeline Network’s Donated Dental Services, a nationwide program responsible for donating more than $500 million in free dental therapies to vulnerable patients over the last 39 years. In addition to providing care to qualified patients at her Palos Hills office, Hale has served on the organization’s board of directors, including a current stint as its vice president.

Between her dental practice, teaching, and organizational activities, Hale remains active six days a week and the once-unimaginable career has become her life’s work.

“The hardest part will be walking away because I enjoy what I do so much,” she says. “But fortunately, I’m not there yet.”