By WSDA News
Northwest Asian Weekly
If you’ve ever met Washington State Dental Association President Dr. Greg Ogata you won’t likely forget him; a man of boundless energy, Ogata’s booming timbre often precedes him. The former college lacrosse player seems to always be on the move, with boyish enthusiasm and a quick smile for all he encounters. It is hard to believe that two years ago he suffered a stroke. It’s been a formidable journey for him— Ogata sold his practice last year and is now on disability. Any stroke you survive while retaining most of your mobility can be considered a triumph. For Ogata, it wasn’t immediately apparent that would happen.
Ogata found his way to dentistry at home. His father, Yoshitaka, was one of the state’s first Asian-American dentists, and was also an orthodontist. Ogata would help out in his father’s office, and often accompanied him to conferences around the country. Greg and his brother Randy both became orthodontists like their dad, while sister Julie is an Emmy-winning television reporter and anchor, and brother Brett is a successful high school football coach. Ogata said, “Dad didn’t pressure me to become a dentist, but all of my dad’s friends were super nice, and it seemed like they were really happy. It didn’t look like a bad life. I graduated from Whitman with a degree in political science, but once I made the decision to go to dental school, I needed some hard sciences — I needed to catch up.” Ogata went to the University of Washington School of Dentistry, where he picked up the courses he didn’t have – genetics, anatomy, organic chemistry and the like, before heading off to orthodontics school in St. Louis.
St. Louis is also where Ogata met his wife Siamphone, (Pon), who had just immigrated to the US from Laos to start a new life in America. Pon was working at McDonalds to support herself, trying to learn English, and finding her way in the states when she met Ogata. The couple has three children: Austin, 15, Carson, 13, and Kiana, 10.
The family got quite a scare in September of 2012 when Dr. Ogata suffered a stroke while at the WSDA House of Delegates, the annual meeting of the governing body for the association. The House was in Walla Walla, Wash. that year, and it would go down as the year of accidents and health scares — with Ogata’s stroke, another delegate’s harrowing bicycle accident, and still another who suffered from food poisoning. Ogata was running for Vice President opposite Dr. Laura Williams, and the two debated for the position. It wasn’t until midway through the spirited engagement that he sensed anything was amiss, recalling, “My hand started to shake, and I tried to write a note, and all I could do was scribble gibberish. Then my legs started to shake — so badly that I had to hold onto the podium to finish the speech.” He was pleased with his debate performance, and attributed everything to nerves, figuring that some water and a little downtime would bring him back to normal. When after 30 minutes he still didn’t feel well, he started to wonder if something more serious was happening. He asked his friend Dr. Doug Coe if anything looked wrong, and Coe confirmed his fears: his face was indeed drooping. It was a Level 1 stroke initially, and something happened later in the evening – Ogata became agitated and his symptoms started to worsen and affect his ability to walk. It was a troubling development, exacerbated by the fact that they were hundreds of miles from home.
Like so many small communities, the hospital in Walla Walla was affiliated with a much larger ER center — theirs was in Portland, Ore. The decision was made to airlift him there, where his condition began to worsen — “They tried to raise my blood pressure using medications, but that made my arm stop working entirely. It was a scary time — as everyone knows ERs aren’t a fun place to be no matter how you feel.” In a few days they took him by ambulance to Swedish Hospital’s Cherry Hill campus in Seattle so that Ogata could be closer to home and family. “When I got to Cherry Hill the first day I panicked a little. I couldn’t move, couldn’t get up, and I think I was beginning to realize the severity of what had happened. I had the nicest Occupational Therapist who recognized this, and asked if I’d had a shower. I hadn’t — in five days! She was amazingly positive. I couldn’t do anything by myself, I had to either have my mother or Pon help me. I felt like I was trapped in someone else’s body — I was sending the same signals to my body, but nothing was happening.” Ogata was about to start one of the most challenging periods of his life..
When he first had the stroke, Ogata did not have the use of his right arm, had slurred speech, and had difficulty walking, but today he walks and drives with ease, and there is no perceptible lag in his speech. Ogata credits his family, and most importantly, Pon, for his recovery to date, saying “I could not have done it without her. The kids helped, too — the boys assisted Greg with his exercises, and Kiana helped relieve painful muscle tension with massage. “The thing they don’t tell you is that you’re in pain all the time because your muscles fire continuously.”
Ogata initially assumed he’d be back to work within six months, but as it became increasingly clear that wasn’t going to happen, his focus shifted, and he placed a call to his colleague, Dr. Gary Inman. The two had served with on the Council on Governmental Affairs at the American Association of Orthodontists and become friends over the years.
Inman says, “I knew Greg, and that he had a young family. I could tell that he was anxious to get back to work, but I could also tell that the stroke had affected him, and that the likelihood that he would ever return to work as an orthodontist was greatly diminished. We looked at the math, and it didn’t behoove him to go back and reinvent his practice… He obviously faced a major adversity with his health, and it’s unfortunate that he had to retire, but his mind is still in top shape. He has a lot to offer still, if not in the practice of dentistry, then as a consultant to the industry.”
Ogata admits he was forced to do a reality check. For the time being, the practice of dentistry is not part of his reality, though he doesn’t completely rule it out in the future.
In truth, the rate of recovery is greatest in the acute and post-acute periods — weeks and months after a stroke. But even if Ogata can’t perform dentistry, he could easily serve in another capacity within the dental industry.
Ogata doesn’t have to get too worked up about what the future holds for at least another year. For now, the business of being president is filling up his schedule nicely.
Between meetings for the WSDA, the American Association of Orthodontists, the American Dental Association, his study club, various visits with physical therapists and occupational therapists, and shepherding his children from games to school to…you get the picture. (end)
Reprinted with permission from the WSDA News.