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It was supposed to be just a quick bite of lunch. Instead, it turned into a chance meeting that propelled second-year UAB School of Dentistry student Gayle Shaffer down the path toward becoming Rear Admiral Gayle Shaffer, Deputy Surgeon General in the United States Navy.

Dr. Gayle ShafferDr. Gayle ShafferShaffer was still uncertain about her career plans when she happened to see two Naval officers having lunch in the School of Dentistry lounge. She struck up a conversation and learned about the possibility of a dental career in the Navy.

“That sounded like a good option for me because if nothing else, it would give me a great place to start,” Shaffer says.

That “start” still hasn’t ended. Shaffer became a Navy Ensign while at UAB and has been an active-duty member of the U.S. Navy since graduating from the School of Dentistry in 1991. She has traveled the world throughout the past three decades and currently serves at the U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery in Falls Church, Va., just outside Washington D.C.

“If I hadn’t gone up to eat lunch in the lounge that day,” Shaffer says, “I’m not sure where I’d be right now.”

A native of Bloomington, Ill., Shaffer received her undergraduate degree from the University of South Alabama in 1987. During her time in Mobile, she began working for a local dentist and discovered that she enjoyed the profession.

“I had a great dentist growing up as a child,” Shaffer says. “A lot of us who go into dentistry has had good experiences. Because if you don’t particularly like going to the dentist, there’s a pretty good chance you’re not going to go into dentistry.

“But as a patient, you have limited experience about what it’s really like. (The work in Mobile) gave me the depth and breadth of what dentists actually do, and I thought it was something I would enjoy. That led to me applying to UAB.”

Upon her arrival, Shaffer discovered that her class of approximately 50 students had barely a half-dozen women. While that ratio is closer to 50-50 these days, it was not unusual for the late 1980s, but Shaffer says she never felt like the female students were treated differently.

“All the instructors were immensely fair and treated us all with respect,” Shaffer says. “I had the same experience when I went into the Navy. I was the only female in the oral surgery department in my first command, but the Navy expects all people to be treated with dignity and respect. I had great experiences in dental school, and that carried over into the Navy as well.”

In many ways, Shaffer says, being a Dental Officer in the Navy isn’t much different from any other dental career. The vast majority of her time was spent practicing basic dentistry to members of the Navy and Marine Corps (which is part of the U.S. Navy) wherever she was stationed. When overseas, the services also were provided to family members.

The biggest difference from a regular dental career – and it is indeed a big one – is that Shaffer also was an active-duty member of the military. This meant she was deployed wherever the Navy felt she was needed, which included the possibility of being sent into military action. So there were times when she had to put down her dental drill and pick up an actual weapon.

“One time I was sent to Camp Lejeune (in North Carolina) with the Marines, and now I’m out there firing a 9-millimeter weapon and doing all these things just in case we have to deploy,” Shaffer says. “I’m still doing dentistry and taking care of active-duty Marines and Sailors, but I’m also preparing to make sure I’m always ready to go should we need to deploy.”

“When someone comes on active duty, first and foremost you’re a Naval Officer, and then a dentist second. You are wearing the uniform representing the Navy, and if you need to deploy, that’s just part of it.”

Shaffer practiced dentistry for the first 20 years of her career in the Navy. She served two Mediterranean deployments onboard the USS Puget Sound and was deployed at various times to Afghanistan, Africa, and Japan. Shaffer also received additional education, went through a residency program, and became certified in the American Board of General Dentistry.

Shaffer later moved into more of an executive role within the Navy. During her career, she has become the first female Medical Officer of the Marine Corps and was the first dentist appointed Deputy Surgeon General of the Navy. Shaffer has received two Legion of Merit awards, four Meritorious Service Medal awards, and various unit and campaign awards.

One thing Shaffer has been unable to do since starting her Navy career is a return to UAB. That is one of the reasons she is looking forward to giving the commencement speech for the School of Dentistry’s Class of 2022 graduation ceremony.

“I can’t wait to see what the school looks like after more than three decades,” Shaffer says. “It’s going to be fun to go back and see it. I know dentistry has changed for the better in many ways since I was there.”

Shaffer is quick to credit the UAB School of Dentistry for her career preparation. After graduation, however, she says it takes more than just the ability to truly become a good dentist.

“One of the things I tell brand new dentists is we have the three As – affability, availability, and ability – and they’re in that order,” Shaffer says. “A lot of times they’ll ask why ability is listed as No. 3. Shouldn’t it be No. 1?”

“Well, our patients assume we have the ability, or else someone wouldn’t have given us a dental license or a degree saying we can go out and take care of patients. So it’s really more about affability – treating patients with respect – and availability. How much are you there for them? Those are really the most important things when it comes to caring for patients.”