The Toothache that Changed a Future

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By Christina Fernández-Morrow, Hola Iowa

If someone had told a teenage Deb Nanda that she’d live in Des Moines for 35 years and run her own dentistry practice, she would have laughed in disbelief. Living in a Chicago suburb with her heart set on becoming a pre-med student, she had other plans. But sometimes life steers us in directions we never imagined. 

Dr. Nanda was born in India to an Indian father and Puerto Rican mother. She and her brother grew up with strong influences from both cultures. Using that as an asset, Dr. Nanda developed an incredible work ethic and heart for helping others. As a senior in high school she worked three jobs. She was a nanny for a special needs boy from 8 am to 5 pm, a hostess at Red Lobster from 6 pm to 11 pm, and from there she’d run to her graveyard shift at the Willy Wonka Candy Factory in Itasca, IL to operate the machines making fruity candy. Snacking on the candy throughout the night led to a toothache. When she went to the dentist, she was awed that a woman doctor took care of her. “I had never had a cavity or anything other than cleaning, so I didn’t really know what dentistry was, what it involved.” Her curiosity was piqued. She wrote to some dental schools and requested brochures. “You don’t have to do an internship; you don’t have to do a residency like with medicine. I thought, ‘this is kind of cool’,” she says of the first time it occurred to her to become a dentist. She had a friend at the University of Iowa and on a whim while visiting him she called their school of dentistry and requested an interview. “Back then you didn’t have to be invited for an interview. I just called the dental school. I thought I could use it for practice. I don’t even think I had applied. I went into the interview, and I wasn’t nervous. I was cracking jokes while answering their questions.” Being herself paid off and two weeks later, they offered her a scholarship. “When I told my parents I got a full ride to dental school at Iowa, my mom said, ‘Deb, you’re going to spend your whole life in Iowa,’ and I was like, ‘No, mom I’m not,’ but here we are,” she laughs. 

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For decades Dr. Nanda was the only Latina dentist in Central Iowa. She began her career working for a dentist in Beaverdale who was close to retirement. “One day I got a call from him, and he said he was selling his business, was I interested in buying it. I called my husband on his lunch hour and said, ‘we need to do this’.” Dr. Nanda was six months pregnant with their first child and although the couple both worked as dentists, they were just starting out and didn’t have the $100,000 needed to buy the business. “I was like, we need to do this now. We’re having a kid. We need to be our own boss. It’s always the woman who pushes the man to make a decision, right? So, we did it.” They spent the next few weeks going from bank to bank, being denied a loan until finally one said yes. “We’re still with them today,” she says of the lender that took a chance on them. Dr. Nanda and her husband, Dr. John McCartney took ownership of Franklin Plaza Family Dentistry in May of 1996. 

Dr. Deb Nanda and her daughter, photo by Jennifer Marquez

Taking over a dentistry practice wasn’t easy. She had to learn the business as she went. She was also building a family. Her three children spent summers in the back room, practicing letters and numbers in the same workbooks Dr. Nanda had as a child. One of the biggest perks of having their own business was ensuring that one of them was with the kids during their younger years. That was tricky because the practice wasn’t their only business. Dr. Nanda has been a dental consultant for Principal Financial Group for fifteen years. She and her husband often worked over 100 hours a month on that business. “We were up at 4 am before seeing patients, during dinner and on weekends. Now we can work remotely but we used to have to track our butts downtown. Some days if we had a few cancellations, we’d run down to Principal and then back to seeing patients.” Despite spending so many hours working, Dr. Nanda finds joy in helping patients, especially those who have reservations about seeing a dentist. “One of the things I love is when I get to help Latino patients who are scared to go to the dentist. I talk to them in Spanish, and they start to feel more comfortable. I know they appreciate it.”

As if running two businesses isn’t enough, Dr. Nanda was a mentor and board member for the Latina Leadership Initiative of Greater Des Moines for many years where she met a lot of other community leaders. “Being more involved in the community helped me practice my Spanish.” It also helped grow her business as more Latinos learned there was a bilingual dentist in the area. “It has allowed me to provide dental care to a population that may otherwise not receive the care they need.” As she looks forward to retiring and indulging full-time in her love of travel, Dr. Nanda is proud of what she and her husband have built and hopes more Latinas take the risk to become business owners. “Be ready for a lot of work and sacrifice, but there is nothing better than being your own boss!”

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