MARYVILLE, Mo. — Spencer Twaddle always said he’d become a dentist, long before he ever did. His interest in the field was in the back of his mind when he graduated from Maryville High School in 2009, racing off to the University of Missouri to study engineering. And it was there well before high school, predating even his own memories.
He recalls spending time at his dad’s dentist office when he was a kid, but he doesn’t remember the specifics like everyone else seems to. So he retells his own story, pieced together from stories he’s heard about himself. He was only 3 or 4 years old when he first decided what he would become.
“When I was little, people would ask, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’” Twaddle said. “I’d always tell people, ‘I want to be a tooth picker like my dad.’ So I kind of always knew.”
Twaddle, 30, told the story of his pathway to dentistry at the dentist’s office he works at now. After studying engineering for a semester at Mizzou he shifted to health sciences and earned a degree.
He then racked up another degree in biology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City where he graduated from UMKC’s dental school in May before joining his dad, Bruce, at the Compass Dental Group in Maryville.
As the United States celebrates National Dental Hygiene Month this October, Twaddle is celebrating his fifth month on the job after years of schooling and patience, doing so in a city he didn’t originally plan on returning to.
At first, Twaddle said, he wanted to complete dental school and go practice somewhere in Colorado near the mountains, until he found out that every other dentist, it seems, has the same plan. A self-described mountain man, Twaddle has always been drawn to the outdoors. And while he enjoyed the six-and-a-half years he spent in the Waldo area of Kansas City, Missouri, it was Twaddle’s love for spacious living, good deer hunting and largely empty golf courses that brought him back to where he is now.
“Growing up ... you don’t get it when you’re a kid, you know?” Twaddle said. “Then you get a little older and you look back and you’re like, ‘I had an awesome childhood, and I’d like to raise kids in the same thing I was in.’”
Where he is now, Twaddle said, is the perfect situation. As his dad, whose name is on the door at Compass Dental, nears his fourth decade of practicing dentistry, Bruce Twaddle may be nearing retirement. After having most decisions made for him at dental school for the last four years, Twaddle is soaking in all he can from Bruce and Dr. Brian Vierthaler, in preparation for his dad to step away.
Twaddle, of course, is entering the field during strange times. He graduated from UMKC two months after the COVID-19 pandemic first upended daily life across the country in March, as instructors and higher-ups at the dental school scrambled, at first, to figure out what to do.
But as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rolled out guidelines for how to best mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, Twaddle and dentists as a whole realized they already had checked many of the boxes. As people around the country clambered to find the proper PPE to meet guidelines, dentists returned to relative normalcy.
“It didn’t really change how things were done,” Twaddle said, as he recalled the guidelines issued in the spring that include bullet points like masks, gloves and frequent hand washing. “It was like, ‘OK, we’re good. Let’s get back to work.’”
Dentists’ offices, Twaddle said, were perfectly designed for the pandemic, just as the dentistry field seems to be tailor made for Twaddle.
His interest in sciences coupled with a passion for people helped guide Twaddle to the field, in which not only his father also works, but also his older brother. Twaddle admired how much his dad seemed to know about each family in Nodaway County saying that he wanted to help people. Dentistry just made sense.
Still, Twaddle’s path back to the Compass Dental offices in Maryville didn’t come without relative hardship. He married his wife, Andi, in the fall of 2014 after dating for more than seven years. He was the first in his friend group to tie the knot, he said, but as he trekked through 11 years of college while friends had children and started their lives, he grew frustrated at times.
“I was in it for the long haul,” Twaddle said. “I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, but the tunnel was just really long. So it was frustrating. Because it’s like — I was ready, you know, I wanted to take the next step. But there’s just a lot of hoops. Gotta get through the hoops.”
Twaddle was one of 3,000 to 4,000 applicants to UMKC’s dental program when he first applied after earning his degree from MU. He interviewed for a spot and was wait-listed, so he took biology courses in Kansas City in an attempt to bolster his resume.
It worked, of course. Twaddle earned his degree in Biology and was accepted into the dental school. And after four more years of school, he graduated from the program and wound up in the same place he was as a 4-year-old: taking pointers from his dad at his practice in Maryville.