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Profiles in Giving

Head of the Class

Catherine Dahl, D12, was the inspiration behind record participation in giving

Reprinted from Tufts Dental Medicine Magazine

Any Tufts dental alum will tell you that navigating four years of rigorous classes and clinical work is a challenge under the best of circumstances. To graduate at the top of the class while battling cancer, “that takes enormous spirit,” says Inga Keithly, president of the 2012 graduating class. “And Catherine did it.”

Catherine Dahl, D12, did indeed inspire her entire class. In turn, 175 of them—more than 99 percent—contributed to a record-breaking class gift before they graduated in May.

Keithly says she felt a kinship with Dahl from the first day of dental school. The majority of first-year students are in their mid-20s. Keithly was 34, and Dahl, a dental hygienist from a farm in Oregon, was 43. Both felt the age gap and bonded over the shared adventure of pursuing a new career.

“I remember distinctly coming down the steps after a tour, and Catherine tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Hey, are you in the dental class, too?’ I said, ‘I am,’ and she said, ‘I’m so relieved!’ ” They spent the rest of orientation learning each other’s stories. “We were both very nontraditional students,” Keithly notes.

Before coming to Tufts Keithly taught surfing in Hawaii and skiing in Aspen; she started a Ph.D. program in education. She earned her dental degree with the help of the military’s Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP) and is now stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Dahl also financed her education through the HPSP and is posted at Fort Lewis in Washington State. The mother of two, Dahl became a grandmother last year.

Her maternal instinct and her “natural, nice and honest” way with people extended to the D12 class, says Keithly. “She was like a mother hen.”

Dahl often took fellow students under her wing—and before long the nurturing swung both ways. “I remember we were walking in for our third or fourth exam for gross anatomy,” says Keithly, “and there’s this moment when you’re in the girls’ locker room, putting on your scrubs and looking at your notes. You know you’re going to be faced with 26 dead bodies. And I look over, and there is Anna, holding Catherine in her arms, and they’re both bawling.”

Dahl had just shared the news with Anna Abrahamian, D12, that she had been diagnosed with stage-three breast cancer. Dahl would spend the next three and half years in and out of clinics and hospitals, as a patient and a dental student. Every setback and every win—like the day her chest port was removed—propelled her classmates forward.

Dahl’s presence among them was a constant reminder that a canceled clinic appointment or a denture that needed resetting yet again wasn’t so bad. “I’d think to myself, ‘Who cares?’ ” says Keithly. “I’m healthy. I’m happy to be here. I’m going to be a dentist when I graduate. How lucky am I?”

Keithly is emotional as she describes her friend’s inner strength. Dahl wasn’t able to come to class while undergoing chemotherapy treatment, so she studied from the treatment center, biochemistry books on her lap—and scored higher than her peers on exams. “I sat through every class, took all the notes, and she scored higher,” Keithly laughs. “She’s awesome. She’s a brave individual, and she’s an achiever, and there isn’t a reason why we wouldn’t all want to gather behind her.”

A High Bar

The last dental school class to break the participation rate for their gift graduated in 2010; 96 percent contributed. When Keithly and Jhon Giraldo, DI12, president of the international student class, met to talk about the 2012 class gift, the goal was clear: Go for the gold—100 percent participation.

The cause was also a no-brainer. “We had someone in our class who just stood out the very day we started,” says Keithly. “To know and work with somebody who was putting it all on the line, saying ‘I want to achieve something remarkable’—and then has this large medical setback and still rocks it—it wasn’t too difficult to get the class behind her.”

When Dahl received the Dean Lonnie H. Norris, DG80, and Dr. Donna M. Norris Senior Endowed Prize Fund for Achievement, Professionalism and Strength of Character at the Senior Awards Dinner in May, she immediately donated the gift back to the school, to the Dental Outreach to Survivors program, which treats victims of domestic abuse for free.

“Catherine’s a phenomenal person,” adds Keithly. “Even though I know that she is too humble to ever do this, I really hope at the end of every day that she can go to bed and say to herself, ‘I am so proud of the example I set for other people.’ ”

Dahl says she cannot express how important her classmates were to her treatment and recovery. “I am so proud to be a member of the Tufts Dental Class of 2012. When they found out about my diagnosis, they organized a fundraiser to help pay medical and house-cleaning bills, and took turns cooking and delivering meals to my home. I just couldn’t let them down after everything they were doing for me.”

Her classmates have made sure that her imprint on the school will be an indelible one. Fifty-five percent of them donated to the class gift at the Dean’s Inner Circle level, which will create a scholarship in Dahl’s honor for another nontraditional student who has faced adversity.

And while the class fell a bit short of the 100 percent participation rate, “99 percent was perfect,” says Keithly. “If you look at it from a different standpoint, it sets the bar for the next class. Go ahead, it says, get a hundred percent.”