How did you get your start in orthodontics? Without a doubt, there was college, then dental school, and then an orthodontic residency. But that’s never the full story. And it’s definitely not the full story of Alpharetta, Ga-based orthodontist Jacqueline M. Malone, DMD, MS.
Malone’s life story and journey into orthodontics will either seem unique or common. It’s the familiar story of a divorced, single mother making the decision to go back to school to create a better life for herself and her child. And although her personal journey into orthodontics took a unique path, it never veered away from her determination to stay true to who she was or her commitment to raising her son well.
Malone, not wanting to place the financial burden of paying for college on her parents, opted to join the U.S. Air Force when she graduated high school. There, she was steered into electronics, having demonstrated a high aptitude for the field. She spent her first 3 years as an electronic warfare systems maintenance technician and later transitioned into information systems/telecommunications. But in the middle, she was trained and worked as a dental laboratory technician and later lab supervisor. Although being a dentist was on her childhood career list, it was then that she started seriously thinking about a career in dentistry.
“When I was in the lab, I started thinking to myself, I could be putting in these orders versus making the crown, the bridge, or the dentures,” she recalls.
Practice Profile: Malone Orthodontics
Location and square footage: Alpharetta, Ga; 2,000 square feet
Number of chairs: 7—5 treatment, ?1 records, and 1 consult
Years in practice: 17
Education: DMD—Medical College of Georgia (now known as Augusta University); MS and Certificate of Orthodontics—University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Top six products used: Brackets from American Orthodontics; Invisalign® from Align Technology Inc; Transbond™ adhesives from 3M Oral Care; VPro5™ and Excellerator from Propel Orthodontics; topsOrtho™ from ?tops Software
At the time, she admits, she didn’t have the confidence to think she could be a dentist, but eventually, she did ask the Air Force about whether they needed dentists and whether they would put her through school. Unfortunately, they didn’t have a need and wouldn’t fund dental school. In addition, her husband, whom she’d met and married while in the Air Force, didn’t think they should take on debt for her to attend dental school outside the service. Thus, Malone put the dream of being a dentist behind her.
After 11 years in the Air Force, and knowing that she didn’t want to make it a lifetime career, Malone decided it was time to move on. She wanted to focus on family. Malone had stayed in the Air Force longer than her husband to provide an income while he finished his degree. The plan had been that she would then leave the Air Force, have a baby, and stay home for a few years. Later, she would go back to school and pursue a computer science degree because she had just finished out her Air Force career as a telecommunications specialist. But things didn’t quite go to plan.
Yes, she got pregnant. Yes, she left the Air Force. But then things went awry. Her son was born prematurely and her marriage ended. And Malone found herself back at home, living with her mother.
For Malone, who had been on her own, taking care of herself, since she was 18, it was a blow. “I felt my lowest because I had a husband who didn’t want to be married and a baby who was premature and I was back at home.”
But, she admits with a laugh, “I got what I asked for. I got what I prayed for. I was able to stay home with my son for a year. If you are connected to God, he will give you what you want—but it may not be how you thought.”
After a year of being a stay at home mom, Malone started the job search and soon found that dream of being a dentist reasserting itself. But first, she had to go to prison.
“When I’m speaking to groups or friends, and tell them my story, I say, ‘Then I spent a year in prison,’ and their jaws just drop,” she says, the amusement audible in her voice. Needless to say, the line gets her listeners’ attention.
Needing a job in the small Georgia town of Waycross, the only one available that fit Malone’s qualifications was a position in the local prison, for, of all things, a dental lab trainer. Malone was a bit hesitant about the prospect, as the position would require her to train inmates directly.
“You want me to teach inmates how to use very sharp instruments to make things. Have you thought about this?” she remembers asking the interviewer. The prison said yes, and she got the job.
Malone was in charge of designing the lab and building the training curriculum. In fact, she received permission from the Air Force to use its curriculum to design training modules. But once the lab was up and running, she wasn’t so sure about her decision to work in the prison.
“You can use inmates to help you as assistants,” Malone says, remembering the high anxiety and sleepness nights she experienced. “And that’s where it ended for me.”
But the position had one plus: She received the encouragement to pursue her dream of being a dentist.
Malone had developed a bond with one of the other teachers in the program and one day found herself lamenting the fact that she didn’t know what to do with her life. “I’m at home, and I haven’t finished my degree in computer science,” Malone remembers telling her colleague. That colleague asked her, “What do you want to do?” Malone shared that at one time she’d wanted to go to dental school. Her colleague said, “Let’s pray about it.” And, as Malone says, “That’s where it all started.”
Back to School
Today, when people tell Malone that they don’t know how they’ll ever become a doctor, hygienist, etc, she has one piece of advice: You just have to start.
And that’s what Malone did to become a dentist. “I took my son and we went back to school for 11 years.” Although grandma would have loved taking care of Malone’s son while she was in school, Malone declined. “He did not have his dad. There’s no way I was going to have him wake up without his mom.”
Malone was 32 years old—her son, Brandon, just 1½—when she went back to finish her bachelor’s. From there, she applied to dental school and was accepted to the Medical College of Georgia (now known as Augusta University). While her son was in daycare, she focused on classes, ranking #1 in her class those first 2 years, and ultimately graduating magna cum laude and second in her class. But that wasn’t enough for Malone.
“I knew if I was going for a business degree, I would need to get the masters and then the doctorate. I’m that person. I knew I was going to specialize,” she says. “General dentistry is too wide open. If I’m going to do any kind of periodontal treatment, then I’m going to want to be at every perio meeting. If I’m going to do implants, the same. So it was too much for me. I considered oral surgery, but then I realized that orthodontics made all the sense in the world. It was the perfect fit.”
Orthodontics made all the sense in the world because it appealed to the part of Malone that loves looking at the biomechanics as well as the artistry of treatment; because it allowed her to work with kids; and because the specialty offers a lifestyle that allowed her to be there to raise her son well.
“What good would it be if I did well and he turned out to be a knucklehead?” she says.
Having graduated at the top of her dental school class, Malone found herself competing for some of the best orthodontic programs in the country—including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It was during her initial interview at UNC when the legendary Dr William Proffit called her into his office and offered her a place in the program. While Malone was thrilled to be accepted, she was touched by the fact that he said, “I know you have a child. What do we need to do to get you to come here?”
“My head is exploding, but I’m just trying to be cool,” she remembers.
While Malone wasn’t the only person in her dental school class or orthodontic program that was coming to dentistry later in life, she was the only single mother. But she had a wealth of support throughout. When her son was not feeling well and she had to take a test, professors would let her son come to the class. He would sit in the back of the hall while she took her exam and fellow classmates would take turns sitting with him when they were done. Whenever Malone had to spend time in the dental lab, where she worked as a tech, her son would come along. Throughout dental school, during finals, Malone’s brother would come to stay to help care for her son so she could focus on exams. And during the rest of the year, she developed a support group with other single parents in the community, which allowed her son to participate in extracurricular activities like t-ball, soccer, and basketball because they could share the carpooling duties.
“I was that parent. I was the single mother in the group. I didn’t have anybody living with me,” she says of those school years. “It was my son and I, and God. And together, we just got through it.”
Malone was 41 when she completed the orthodontic residency program at UNC—her son, 11. And before graduation she had a huge decision to make about what would come next. Malone knew she had two options: start a solo practice now or go work as an associate with a corporate practice. But she felt in her heart that the latter wasn’t right for her. So she set out to start her own practice, choosing Alpharetta, Ga, for its location. When it came to this decision, her son took precedence. She wanted to make sure she was in an area with good public schools because she knew it would be difficult to manage private school.
Over the last 17 years, Malone has built a practice—Malone Orthodontics—that works for her. Just out of UNC, one of her professors asked her to fill in at his practice while he and his wife went on a 3-week vacation. On a typical day, the practice saw 80 to 90 patients. While she dreamed of a well run practice like her mentor’s, where the patients were well taken care of, she remained cautious as she designed her own practice, realizing that starting out bigger did not necessarily mean better. She got further confirmation that a large, high volume practice wasn’t for her when she spent the first year working for a corporate orthodontic practice while her own practice was being built. There, she was seeing over 100 patients a day. Learning from these experiences, Malone set out to design a practice that would allow her to spend extra time with patients when she wanted and to be there for her son. A smaller, boutique style practice better fit the bill.
In those early years, she admits she tried to compete: wooing general dentists and hygienists for referrals and trying every marketing strategy under the sun. The result: a pulmonary embolism in the first year she opened her practice. Malone considered dissolving her practice, but a colleague from UNC showed up when she got out of the hospital and helped her evaluate what she was doing. He was shocked by how much marketing and outreach she had already done. Malone realized she couldn’t sustain it, and she made a choice. “I’d just rather be a part of the community—help the local schools and maintain business partnerships with them. And maybe by simply giving back, people will recognize that I’m active in the community; and then that, coupled with satisfied and happy patients, will help me grow.”
While building her own practice wasn’t without its challenges, Malone relishes the fact that she is where she is. “Even though I had years of struggle, I’m so thankful that I hung in there and that I get to get up and go to work for myself. I get to take care of my patients and my team the way I want to.”
And taking care of her team means encouraging them to live their best lives. “I often lose some of my best staff because I find in them an interest to do more and I encourage them to go for it. But I have a great group now—some of the best staff members I’ve ever had.”
And she makes a point of taking care of her patients like they were her own children. “A Professional’s Eye….A Mother’s Touch—that’s our motto,” she says. “That’s who I am. I take care of my patients the way I would my son—my first patient—and I love him more than any other person in this world.”
As for her son Brandon, well, he turned out very well. Having played only 1 year of football during 12th grade (at his coach’s urging), he was offered scholarships to nine colleges. He ultimately chose Duke University. He graduated in 2010 with degrees in biological anthropology and psychology.
“People ask, ‘How did you go to dental school with a 4 year old?’ And I say, ‘I don’t know.’ I don’t recall anything but the fun stuff, like our pizza and movie Friday nights. I just know that if you want to do something, you have to simply decide to do it, resist overanalyzing it, and recognize there’s a path to do it. Bottom line, I couldn’t have become an orthodontist any other way than signing up for school and going. My prayers never stopped and I remain thankful for persevering.” OP