Dr. Phyllis Pendergrast (DMD '76)
The Right Place, the Right Time
Alumna Battles the Elements to Serve Remote Alaska Villages
Fort Yukon, Alaska, Late ‘70s
Inside the makeshift dental clinic in the heart of Alaska’s bush, Dr. Phyllis Pendergrast and her assistant, Deb Carlson, were performing a complicated surgical extraction when the village’s generator suddenly sputtered, then died, plunging them into darkness.
“We actually were in a precarious position with this patient because the electricity was off for the day; it was gone,” said Pendergrast. The generator was out of fuel, and with the only way in or out by plane, snowmobile, or dogsled, the tiny village of only a few hundred people had no resources to get more until the following day.
The rest of the extraction had to be completed—successfully—with a single flashlight. The result might have been much different “had it not been for the extra training that my Dean, Dr. [Judson] Hickey, saw to it that we received when he learned I was going to Alaska,” said Pendergrast (DMD ’76). “And of course, Alaska was definitely that wild place.”
North to Alaska
Pendergrast’s family hails from Swainsboro, Ga. (she herself was born in Augusta), and returned there after a short stint in Orlando, Fla., when she was a girl. Growing up, she wanted to be a doctor—and at that time in the early ’70s, oddly enough it was far more common for women to enter the medical field than dentistry.
She was working as a medical technologist at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta before applying to medical school when she realized the field just wasn’t for her. It was not only the hours—“I wanted to have a life”—but also the emotions tied up in the loss of patients. “There was a moment when literally I was holding someone in the emergency room when they died, and I came back to the lab and just kind of sat there, and I said, ‘You know, I think I’m just going in the wrong direction.’”
It happened that her work included supervising dental students. One of them looked at her and asked, “Why don’t you become a dentist?”
“Are you kidding?” Pendergrast replied. “There aren’t women dentists.”
“Sure there are,” he said. “There’s one in my school.”
With her ties to Augusta, Pendergrast applied to the Medical College of Georgia School of Dentistry (now the Georgia Regents University College of Dental Medicine)—and to her surprise, she got in. And to her even greater surprise, she loved everything about dentistry: “I think it was one of those divine moments where the planets lined up and someway, somehow, it was meant to be.”
She was one of only three women dentists in the class of ’76. “It was a new school and it was a very progressive school,” said Pendergrast. “It was like they sat down and said, ‘If we could have the perfect dental school, what would it be like?’ and that is what they tried to put together. I did not really appreciate that until I came to Alaska. There wasn’t a day that went by that I did not appreciate the education I received at the Medical College of Georgia.”
During her first year of dental school, Pendergrast had applied for a scholarship from the U.S. Public Health Service, a commissioned corps that provides essential health services to underserved and disadvantaged populations across the country. She was only a few months from graduation when she got a call offering a retroactive scholarship in return for at least two years of service. Because she and her husband both enjoyed outdoor activities, when they asked Pendergrast where she’d like to go, she responded, “Well, I’ve always wanted to go to Alaska.”
A dead silence followed as her caller absorbed this unusual reply. But then it was agreed—in June, Pendergrast would leave Augusta’s summer heat for the extreme highs and lows of Fairbanks, where low temperatures during the winter can fall to minus 60 degrees F and the air can literally freeze.
During her first three years, Pendergrast was based at a clinic in Fairbanks, but two weeks out of every month would find her taking a prop plane to villages in Alaska’s nearly impenetrable interior, known as the bush.
They were memorable days—riding a snowmobile on Brooks Range in the north part of the state; going skiing and taking photographs; spotting caribou against a brilliant blue sky surrounded by snow and mountains. She even sewed and wore mukluks made from caribou hide, chopped chum, and competed in her first dogsled race, earning the coveted Red Lantern for coming in last place. And in nearly every village, she was sure to come across someone who would seek her out to proudly show off a pair of forceps—not meant to be used anywhere near teeth— in their role as official extractor when a trained dentist was unavailable.
Those days also challenged every skill and technique she learned at MCG. All supplies and equipment had to be brought in to each village, where she and her assistant would establish a mobile clinic inside a classroom or community center. During the day, they would treat children, and during the late afternoon and evenings, adults.
Dentists typically went to each village only once a year, so the days were long, often up to 12 hours. Much of what Pendergrast did was surgical—from working on impacted molars to wiring a jaw together after a fracture—all in undreamed-of conditions and with the closest medical or dental support around 300 miles away.
“At the time, I didn’t think anything about it because you just do what you need to do,” said Pendergrast. “But had I not had that extra training and confidence [from MCG], I don’t think I would have lasted very long in that job.”
But she did last. After three years in Fairbanks, the public health service asked Pendergrast if she would consider moving into an even more remote location—the tiny town of Galena, where the service was opening the first of several hubs to make it easier for dentists and other medical professionals to reach Alaska’s interior—even tinier villages home to fewer than 100 people. “I actually could think of more reasons to go than reasons not to go,” she said. “What kept me in Alaska was just a love of Alaska, a love of the community and the sense of community here and the people that I worked with and worked for.”
She spent the next four years in Galena, during which time she gave birth to her daughter, who spent much of her babyhood strapped to her mother or in a car seat on a single-engine plane. But after Hannah was born, Pendergrast started thinking about a change—not leaving Alaska, but resettling in a city. During a plane trip, the field team, along with her infant daughter, was caught in a sudden whiteout—literally unable to see 20 feet in front of them. She remembers turning around and looking at her baby, and thinking, “Wow, we may not make it.”
The whiteout lifted just enough to allow the pilot to make the landing. But that single moment cemented her decision. Her family took six months off to travel New Zealand, and when they returned to Alaska, she joined a clinic for two days a week before opening her own practice in 1984. During the past 19 years, she’s stuck to a certain practice philosophy—heavily influenced by her time in the harsh climate and remote area of the bush. “I’ve really found that the more you give, the more you do, the more it gets returned somehow, if not to you directly, then someone else,” she said. “I watched these folks [in the bush] over the years, that they truly help each other, [so] I have this goal to give back as much as I can and hopefully someway, somehow pass it on to other people who in turn, obviously, pass it on themselves—as corny as that sounds.”
Pendergrast has given back to the profession, serving as President of the Alaska Dental Society and President of the Alaska State Dental Board; to her staff, providing mentoring and a familyfriendly office environment; and to her community, offering free clinics, reducing or writing off dental work for those in need, and volunteering with local non-profits, particularly the arts.
She doesn’t always see the results of her “pay it forward” philosophy. But one day a few years ago, Pendergrast was down in the lower 48 assisting dental students with exams at a local school, when a beautiful young girl came up to her. “She said, ‘Dr. Pendergrast, I know you don’t remember me, but you were my first dentist out in bush Alaska. You told me that when I grow up, I should think about being a dentist. And I grew up, and I thought about it, and here I am.’
“That made it all fall into place then—the reason why I came to Alaska.”
Written by Danielle Wong Moores