by Mart G. McClellan, DDS, MS

A little planning can save your life in the face of a major health crisis

There is only one thing certain in life, and that is change. When we finish our residencies, we go into private practice (usually as an associate), buy a home, start a family, become a partner, start investing for the future, grow the business, and a multitude of other important issues that add to the list. One thing that usually gets left off this list is attention to our personal health, which can change very quickly.

The issue of personal health hit me like a freight train this year. I am in my mid-40s and have been practicing for more than 15 years. Although I am not a vigorous exerciser, I have always tried to stay active. My wife asked that I get a physical since I had not had one for a number of years. (Does that sound familiar, guys?)

After my physical, my physician told me that he was picking up a heart murmur on his stethoscope that he had not heard previously. He referred me to a cardiologist for an echocardiogram (“echo”). The nurse told me that it was relatively common for 40-year-olds to have a heart murmur or leaky valve, so I had little to worry about. After my echo, the cardiologist notified me that I needed open heart surgery to repair my mitral valve prolapse. So much for "little to worry about"! It was not life-threatening, but having my chest opened was inevitable. The freight train had hit.

Many things start racing through your head when you realize the most significant health issue of your life is staring you in the face: How will my wife and children deal with this? Do I have enough disability and life insurance? Is my medical insurance adequate? How long will I be out of the practice? Who will cover my office when I am recovering? What happens if I do not recover? What are the long-term complications?

I will address all of these issues so as to help you if you are ever sick or out of the office for an extended period of time.

My wife and children were amazing during this process. I think a lot of it had to do with our attitudes that everything was going to be fine and that I would be even better than before. It also helps that I was blessed with the leading cardiovascular surgeon on mitral valve repair in the country. Since my condition was not an emergency, I chose my surgeon and planned for my absence from my practice. Being proactive instead of reactive decreased my personal and professional stress significantly.

The issue of insurance coverage is near and dear to my heart: I am president of a wealth-management company for dentists and give advice on this topic to orthodontists all over the country. When it comes to disability, life, and medical insurance, there is only one answer to the proper amount of coverage for you and your family. It is the maximum. Period. All of these insurance coverages should be purchased with no out-of-pocket expense to you when the proper strategies are in place, so there is absolutely no reason not to have maximum coverage. When you know that you have maximum coverage for you and your family before the event occurs, you have an amazing peace of mind.

My surgeon told me that I would be out of the office for 4 to 12 weeks. Since I am quite young for this procedure and practice by myself, I was planning on being out of the office for 4 weeks. When you are aware of being out of the office for a prolonged period, it is great to be part of a short-term disability coverage group or have friends cover the practice. A short-term disability group is the best option because everyone in the group is aware of what is expected of them in the case of a disability or death. Usually, the two to 10 members of the group meet on a yearly basis to discuss such issues as the specific days they can work and how many. The AAO also has a program for coverage in the case of disability or death.

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Once I was aware of who was going to help me out in the practice while I was in recovery, I sent a blast e-mail to all of my patients about my condition, the time I would be away, and the background of the orthodontists who would be treating them. The patients were also notified personally in the office. I called my referring dentists personally as well. Keeping everyone well informed during this process is the key to its success.

Fortunately, the surgery went without complications and I was able to report back to work after a little more than 4 weeks. Another planning issue is to schedule your days lightly for a couple of weeks after you return.

A major health issue touches the lives of many, and it certainly changes your perspective on life. You find yourself really appreciating the little things in life, like playing a board game with your children. Since my mitral valve was repaired instead of replaced, there was no need for long-term blood thinners, so I can shave with confidence. Little things do make a difference, so I hope you can find the time to get a physical for you and your family’s sake!

Mart G. McClellan, DDS, MS, is a board-certified orthodontist and a registered investment advisor and president of Macro Wealth Management ( He can be reached at