During her third year at the OHSU School of Dentistry — the year many students consider the most difficult in the four-year curriculum — Michelle Bloemers, D.M.D. ’22, was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Because the COVID-19 pandemic was already encompassing the nation, face-to-face contact in health care was limited. Bloemers recalled receiving her distressing diagnosis over the phone and immediately telling her husband, Jonathan, “I’m not letting this stop me from graduating with my class.”
As the first step in her treatment at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, Bloemers underwent a mastectomy. A post-surgery biopsy pathology report determined that her cancer was aggressive, so her medical team recommended a course of chemotherapy to block a recurrence.
“My surgeons were phenomenal for the mastectomy and reconstruction,” Bloemers said. “And the oncology nurses are like a different breed of human. They are amazing.”
Bloemers underwent four rounds of chemotherapy while focusing on her clinical and didactic dental studies. As if the universe was testing her coping ability, COVID-19 pandemic protocol left Bloemers on her own during her stressful procedures. Jonathan was not allowed to be with her when she underwent her surgery, nor could Bloemers have him or any other support person present during her chemotherapy sessions.
“I’ve learned that I am stubborn,” Bloemers said. “I am really strong, and I am persistent.”
“If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t change anything because I feel like I am so much stronger from what I went through.”Michelle Bloemers
Bloemers scheduled her treatments for Thursdays or Fridays, used the weekends to recover and then attended classes again the following week. She kept her cancer diagnosis mostly private but felt supported by instructors who made accommodations and regularly checked on her throughout the course of her treatment. It was Jonathan who provided her with the most essential support.
“He was an amazing caretaker,” she said.
After the herculean challenge of finishing her chemotherapy treatments while continuing her full-time dental studies in May of 2021, Bloemers set her sights on another formidable task: running the Portland Marathon. She had participated in it previously with Jonathan, and this time she invited her best friend and dental classmate, Rachel Meek, D.M.D. ’22, to join them for the October race.
“Michelle can do anything she sets her mind to. From painting, to dentistry, to running a marathon, to making a connection with someone. She’s just really dedicated to making the world a better place.”Rachel Meek
For Meek, Bloemers’ diagnosis was a wake-up call.
“She’s my favorite person. You only have so much time to do things with people you love,” Meek said. “I don’t think that I would have done something like that on my own without her motivation behind me.”
As they approached the last few miles of the race, both Jonathan and Meek were lagging behind, but Michelle urged Meek to finish with her.
“There’s a photo of us crossing the finish line and she’s smiling and I look like I’m about to die,” Meek said. “And she’s the one who just finished chemo! It’s good to have someone who pushes you and motivates you to be better.”
Bloemers regards the School of Dentistry’s wealth of faculty knowledge and the student clinical experiences, even during the COVID-19 pandemic, as excellent preparation for her current work as a D.M.D.
Shortly after graduation, Bloemers began working at a private dental practice in Oregon City where she currently oversees all clinical care. She also works part-time at Wallace Medical Concern, a public health dental and medical clinic serving an underserved population in Gresham. She was exposed to Wallace through her external rotation as an OHSU student.
“At Wallace, I’m seeing low-income patients who have very serious dental disease,” Bloemers said. At the private practice she oversees, she enjoys doing aesthetic dentistry and handling complex cases, but feels drawn toward serving the population at Wallace. “I feel like sometimes I’m doing more good work at Wallace and making more of a difference there,” she said.
Bloemers and Jonathan share a commitment to caring for the underserved. Together they volunteer their time serving breakfasts at the Blanchet House, a non-profit social services organization located in Portland’s Old Town. She dreams of establishing a clinic to provide low-cost or free dental care for this population.
Reflecting on her personal health journey, Bloemers said, “If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t change anything because I feel like I am so much stronger from what I went through.” She believes her experience has helped her to better connect with her patients, especially if they or their loved ones may be coping with cancer.
Knowing she can offer a survivors’ perspective to those battling cancer has been rewarding for Bloemers, who did not have someone to help her in that way.
“That’s one of the reasons I wouldn’t change what happened,” she said. “I feel like it was worth it in the end.”
“Michelle can do anything she sets her mind to,” Meek said. “From painting, to dentistry, to running a marathon, to making a connection with someone. She’s just really dedicated to making the world a better place.”