Monday, June 26, 2017

Oral history interview with Toni Eigner-Barry, DMD

by Rachel Fellman

“One of my residents said one time I was the Indiana Jones of dentistry,” says Dr. Toni Eigner-Barry Eigner in her interview for the OHSU Oral History Program. “And really, that’s who I want to be.” 

Her globe-spanning dentistry practice has led her to Cameroon, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Nepal, as well as to public health work closer to home. Throughout her career, she’s worked for underfunded, duct-tape dental programs and done things dentists don’t usually do.

Dr. Eigner-Barry with staff and students at OHSU (Historical Image Collection, doi:10.6083/M4445JZH)
She grew up working-class in Portland, the daughter of a heating/AC mechanic. As a prospective student, she applied to programs in psychology and general medicine as well as dentistry; dentistry school said “yes” first, and that determined the course of her life. She began her professional education in 1973, and although she was one of only three women in her class of eighty, she always felt supported there. When an administrator tried to force the female dental students to store their equipment in the dental hygienists’ locker room, two floors below the one reserved for dentists, the male students threatened a sit-out until the administrator backed down. “It was this great moment,” she says, “where you realized the tide had turned.”

Dr. Eigner-Barry’s career was adventurous from the beginning. After her freshman year, she and her first husband (a medical student) traveled to Cameroon to work at Banso Hospital. It was the first of several such trips over the years. The general surgeon there, Dieter Lemke, told her to “only leave behind what you teach” when working overseas -- advice that she’s tried to live by. He taught her to do local anesthetic and remove teeth; in turn, she trained a Cameroonian nurse and a local teenager who eventually became a dentist herself. Years later, she was responsible for putting together a full-scale dental clinic. On another trip, she rescued maternity clinic staffers from a tribal war, then picked up the wounded and acted as an anesthesiologist for the treating surgeon.

She had always been interested in work that was a little beyond conventional dentistry, taking on a general practice residency (GPR) after graduation to learn “how to wire a fractured mandible, oral surgery, general anesthesia.” After her residency, she joined the OHSU dental faculty as well as the hospital dental service, treating complex cases: “cancer, bleeding disorders, heart failure, organ transplant.” To treat a boy with severe hemophilia, she learned a new anesthesia technique, using a tiny 30-gauge needle, and practiced it on herself.

Besides the dental service, teaching, and extensive clinical work overseas, she spent much of her career at the Russell Street Clinic (founded by Dr. David Rosenstein, who we recently featured on this blog). She speaks admiringly of Dr. Rosenstein’s optimism: “He thinks that pigs can fly. And he made that one fly for thirty-five years.” Here, once again, her work sometimes overlapped with general medicine. Her clients at Russell Street were “populations that are underserved medically and dentally. So I mean, because they’re also underserved medically, you really need to look at people closely. I’ve been the first one to see a patient and diagnose oral cancer two or three times.” Another time it was bacterial endocarditis.

Check out the interview here for more about this swashbuckling dentist.

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