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The Ride Of Her Life

By Diane Haring Cornell

For Susan Hill, life has had its ups and downs. Literally.

A roller coaster enthusiast, Ms. Hill, administrative director of the Division of Continuing Dental Education, has traversed the country in search of the perfect ride. And while to her, riding a roller coaster that has good "air time" (the moments your body leaves the seat) is the ultimate thrill, nothing could prepare her for the low point her life reached in December 1998, when a series of vague and slightly uncomfortable symptoms were diagnosed as ovarian cancer.

Ms. Hill, 49, had gone to the doctor initially to be treated for deep vein thrombosis and was put on a blood thinner. While there, she off-handedly mentioned some things that were giving her discomfort, but were not acute. She often felt bloated, but dismissed it as being out of shape. She simply thought she needed to do more exercise to combat the affects of aging. Digestive discomfort was common, but Ms. Hill attributed it to something she ate.

"I was fortunate that my one problem led to my other problem being diagnosed," says Ms. Hill, who does not want sympathy for herself, but rather that, in hearing her story, others may become more aware of the symptoms of ovarian cancer. "So often this disease goes undetected because the warning signs are so silent." She is grateful that her physicians paid attention to her complaints and were astute enough to realize their possible meaning. This lead to a fortunate early diagnosis and subsequently, a good response to chemotherapy.

Ultimately, Ms. Hill endured eight cycles of chemotherapy over six months, losing her hair, fighting nausea and fatigue-all with her usual good humor and discipline that has led her to be thought of so fondly by her colleagues at the New Jersey Dental School.

Dr. Jerome Engel, dental director of CDE, works closely with Ms. Hill and says she is an excellent administrator.

"She is very innovative and stays up-to-date on what's going on throughout the country in continuing education," comments Dr. Engel. "She knows how to get the best out of our faculty for our programs."

The administrator began her career at UMDNJ 25 years ago, when a stint at substitute teaching in the Newark public school system led her to change her career plans in a hurry. "Every day it was, 'Let's torment the substitute,'" she recalls. It was the mid-'70s, during the teacher crunch, and jobs in elementary education were hard to come by. While trying to sort out her options, she took a job as a secretary in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at New Jersey Medical School and was quickly promoted.

In 1980 she transferred to Continuing Education and became secretary to Dr. Robert Moutrie, who is now associate vice president for continuing education. He encouraged her to go back for her master's degree. With more training, she gradually took over the responsibilities of managing and coordinating the program at the dental school. At the time, the department was in its infancy.

"We started out with one person-me-and offering six programs a year. Now we have a staff of five people­plus the support of the Center for Continuing Education­and offer 75 to 90 programs annually," Ms. Hill notes. "Our courses run the gamut from evening lectures to a 40-week, hands-on workshop. It's a comprehensive program that can meet the individual needs of dentists, whether they want to focus on a particular area or need more broad-based experience."

In order to develop new programs and stay on top of current trends, Ms. Hill canvases faculty and department chairs, scans dental literature, and surveys past course registrants. She also stays active in many professional organizations which also help to keep course offerings current.

Over the years, the incentives for dentists to seek out more education have changed, and Ms. Hill tries hard to have that reflected in the course offerings. When AIDS first emerged as a widespread threat in the '80s, infection control courses were extremely popular. Lately, courses in esthetic procedures, implantology, and working with new dental materials have fared well.

Ms. Hill sees the next major area of interest to be in the use of technology. She is now learning more about the Internet and how it can be used to teach practitioners online. The school currently offers one Internet course­on orofacial pain­that is developed and facilitated by Dr. Richard Pertes. Recently, 18 dentists from around the world went online for the information during a three-month period.

"The program and I have grown together," Ms. Hill says. "I attempt to learn more about the process of dental education so that I can improve our program and keep up with the
latest trends."

Ms. Hill's outlook is upbeat about the continuing dental education program and her own future. Despite not being able to enjoy her beloved roller coasters­doctors advised against it because her blood thinning medication would put her at too much risk for internal bleeding if she were injured-she has other things to keep her heart pounding. Namely, her fiancé, Bob Lordi, whom she met at a singles dance in January 1998. It was he, along with family and colleagues, who kept up her spirits after her diagnosis.

As for her betrothed, Ms. Hill says he is a wonderful man who, incredibly to her, had never been on a roller coaster before two summers ago. Now, thanks to her interest, "he just loves it." The couple are members of the American Coaster Enthusiasts, a group 4,000 strong who vacation together, hold conferences, and keep journals, all for the love of roller coasters. Her favorite ride is Magum XL-200 at Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, Ohio. It is 200 feet tall and very steep. Other favorites are old wooden roller coasters, which give a different, livelier ride than most modern steel coasters.

With her love of rides and her unbridled enthusiasm (she describes chemotherapy as "not as bad as I expected"), it is no wonder Ms. Hill has chosen to be married at Walt Disney World this May. She says of the site: "We just wanted to have a little fun." After the ups and downs of her life last year, it's about time.


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