Finding what works with Dr. David Scaffidi
David Scaffidi walked briskly across the deck of the offshore oil platform to assess the situation. He was the team leader of the engineering crew that designed and assembled the platform, and he had just gotten word that one of his crew had suffered a minor accident. Suddenly, the floor disappeared beneath his feet and he started freefalling. In that split second, he realized that he needed to catch on to something (anything!) to prevent himself from plunging down to the water below. It was a sure death fall.
“It was 2001 and I was a civil engineer doing design and installation of offshore oil platforms. We had a big project going on with 75 to 100 guys working on this platform. At some point, the alarm went off indicating a man on the team had been injured and so I was walking across the platform to check on him. What I didn’t know was that during the day, some of the workers had cut a three foot by three foot hole in the deck to bring some equipment through. I didn’t see it, and they didn’t rope it off. All of a sudden, I didn’t have anything underneath my feet. I was a goner…”
Today, the civil engineer who stepped into the abyss (and lived to tell about it) goes by Dr. David Scaffidi. The story of David Scaffidi and his hometown of New Orleans are inexorably intertwined. Both emerged from near-death experiences to face uncertain futures. Both used the near-fatal incidents as a pivot point to reinvent themselves and change the direction of their future. Their combined story began some three decades prior in the suburbs of the Crescent City.
Growing Up in New Orleans
It’s said people either get New Orleans or they don’t. As a lifelong resident, David Scaffidi was one of those who ‘got’ the city and its somewhat atypical way of life. His childhood was spent exploring the nooks and crannies of his neighborhood in that unsupervised way kids did in the 70’s. Once he was old enough to work, he joined a company owned by friends of the family doing residential and commercial construction. His enjoyment of the job influenced his decision to study engineering when he was accepted at the University of New Orleans. But it wasn’t his sole consideration.
“I had braces when I was growing up. At one of the appointments, I remember thinking about a career in orthodontics. I went so far as to check in with the LSU dental school. But when I got to school, I was eager to get a job and get on with my life. So I went for an engineering degree. Right out of school, I went to work for an oil company doing offshore oil platform design and installation. I was making pretty good money and started a family.”
He was good at his job and the work held his attention for a while. “It was interesting and fun. I saw some amazing things. But on the rigs, you’re either working or sleeping. You’re also spending a lot of time away from your family.”
So the thought of pursuing a more family-friendly occupation was already in his head before he took the fateful step that left him falling from a rig to a certain demise below.
The Fall and Rise of a Career
As his body started through the hole, he realized that everyone on the rig would be focused on his team member that had slipped off the scaffolding. That meant, even if he were to somehow survive, nobody would notice him missing for quite some time. Instinctually, he threw his arms out to try and grab the jagged metal where the hole was cut.
“I caught myself and was able to crawl up. But I was cut up pretty bad. I walked into the supervisor’s office and was covered with blood. He took one look at me and wanted to fly me to the hospital on the helicopter. “I told him to just fly me to the heliport and I would drive to the hospital.”
Later that day he was sitting in the hospital with his wife. Knowing he needed to make a career change, he looked over at her and declared, “Either I’m going to buy a red corvette or I’m going to dental school.” Not surprisingly, she suggested he pursue the latter.
“My wife and I decided I would take some night classes and get the pre-requisites out of the way. That way if we got the opportunity to enroll in dental school, we could seriously consider it. Sure enough, we got the offer. But it was still a difficult decision. I was still on the fence when we were leaving on a family vacation. We were all sitting in the airport. I struck up a conversation with a random gentleman who was also there with his wife and kids. I asked the gentleman where they were headed and he said, ‘I’ve decided to change careers and I’m going back to school’.”
“At that point, I looked over to my wife and said, ‘I can do this’. That was the moment I stepped over the line in my mind and thought, we’re going to make this happen.”
So at age 32, with a newborn at home, David Scaffidi walked away from a good paying job to professionally reinvent himself, based on an idea from two decades ago. The tremendous challenge of his task didn’t take long to appear.
“Dental school was a completely different concept than engineering school. With engineering, you learn a concept and then you apply it. In dental school, it’s a lot more memorization. I struggled a little bit in the beginning, but knew that failure wasn’t an option as I’d already quit my job.”
David was able to regroup. He graduated from the LSU dental school in May of 2005, finishing high enough in his class to gain acceptance in the LSU orthodontic program. He was four weeks into his residency when the city he loved so much had her own near death experience. Hurricane Katrina brought everything in the area to a complete stop; the LSU dental school was under 8 feet of water.
Back to Basics
In the first month after the storm, ideas like education and orthodontics took a backseat to more pressing items such as shelter and community. He used his construction background to rebuild the flood damage to his own house (they got just 3 inches) and helping his neighbors get back on their feet. Eventually after about four weeks, the orthodontic school at LSU reached out to his class.
“They told us they were going to do everything in their power to get it back up and running. But there were no guarantees. The storm was international news, and everyone had been offered an alternate place to perform their residency. We had students from Tennessee and Utah and North Carolina. So it was up to all of us on whether to stay or not. Nobody left.”
Thus set against the backdrop of the city trying to rebuild, his group began one of the more atypical orthodontic classes in orthodontic history. The initial classes consisted of going to the part time instructor’s private practices and working as apprentices throughout the day. They got real world experience on all aspects of the profession—clinical and business. The instructors came from all over the state and there were times we wound up sleeping at the instructor’s house at night.”
After three months of the nomadic study route, an LSU orthodontic alumnus who had extra office space in his practice donated it to the program. At the same time, alumnus from all over the country were donating their time and equipment to get the program back up and running. Slowly but surely, things drifted back towards some semblance of normalcy. In true New Orleans fashion, he acknowledges the unconventional might have been more beneficial.
“It forced us into some situations we wouldn’t otherwise get to experience and brought our class incredibly close together. Having the opportunity to go out and work as an apprentice, we got an intimate look at how different individuals run their practices. We got to see the various business models for small and large practices.”
While the ‘traveling education’ might have been beneficial from a learning standpoint, it was trying on the families.
“It was probably harder on the wives and the families than it was on any of us. We were just going where we needed to go and bouncing around while the wives took care of the family matters, which was a full time job by itself. Without my wife’s support, none of this would have been possible.”
Coming Full Circle
As David Scaffidi completed his residency in 2007, New Orleans was undergoing a similar transformation. Since the storm, New Orleans has reinvented itself as a techfriendly city with a thriving entrepreneurial scene. The city is also building the Medical Center of Louisiana at New Orleans, a 78-acre medical facility that will bring in 10,000 good jobs. On an equally impressive, yet slightly smaller scale, Dr. Scaffidi’s reinvention is complete. He purchased his first practice in Kenner, LA in 2007 and opened a second office in 2011. This year he relocated that second office right down the road from where he, his wife Lyn and their three children Elizabeth, Matthew and Caroline live.
The difference between sending a 500-pound drill bit two miles under the earth versus moving a molar 2 millimeters isn’t lost on David Scaffidi. “The lifestyle you live offshore is very blue collar. Guys are educated to be experts in an individual skill. There’s no consideration given to beauty. It either works, or it doesn’t. Orthodontics is much more inclusive. It’s a combination of academics and esthetics.” But like probing for oil, look deep enough, and you’ll find some overlap.
“There’s no doubt working as an engineer has helped shape my education and how I approach my practice, how I diagnose and plan cases. There is no blueprint on how you should approach every patient. Just like there’s no black and white solution to every engineering problem you’re trying to solve. You’re given a problem and a specific set of tools and you go from there.”
Regardless of what kind of orthodontic problems Dr. Scaffidi and his team encounter, the one variable they promise to control is time. The practice goes to great lengths to make sure they’re always on schedule. “There’s nothing worse than showing up at a doctor’s office and having to sit around and wait. It can throw off a parent’s whole day, which is hectic enough as it is.”
He also makes sure the parents can be with the children while they’re getting treated. “I’ve seen younger patients undergo very productive appointments, then when mom or dad asks what happened, they give the standard teen answer, ‘not much’. How disappointing for the parent! It’s just as important to make the parent feel just as welcome as the kid.”
Recently Dr. Scaffidi had a patient bring her ukulele and perform a miniature concert in the lobby. In some practices and professions, this might be unusual. But not here. Not only was it a quintessential New Orleans scene, but it was a typical moment in a journey that for Dr. David Scaffidi, has been anything but typical.
This article was published in OrthoWorld 2015 Spring Issue