By Dana Delgado
Monica Goldenberg’s journey to becoming a successful orthodontist in central Texas started thousands of miles away with a great deal of uncertainty.
Growing up in Romania, then under communist control, Dr. Goldenberg said the country, despite its wealth, provided a life with limited sustenance and only a few comforts while living in a large housing complex.
While many memories came to mind as she chronicled her journey, a teary-eyed Dr. Goldenberg said she was moved by a few, very impactful events that helped shape her personally and professionally.
She recalls learning English in sixth grade at a Romanian school from a teacher she and everyone else greatly feared. The towering six-foot teacher adamantly refused to allow anyone to speak their native language while they were learning English in his classroom.
“He walked around the class and when he stopped and put his large hand on our shoulders, our hearts would race with fear,” Dr. Goldenberg remembered as it was yesterday. In spite of the teacher’s imposing statute, intimidation and strict demeanor, Dr. Goldenberg called him an “amazing teacher” and said the English she learned would serve her well, years later.
With little emphasis on dental hygiene and good teeth, the young student aspired to become a general dentist, a goal she would quickly reach in her native Romania. Marriage to Marius Goldenberg and the birth of her daughter Sandra, however, brought new challenges. None, however, would be bigger than her husband’s interest in attending school in the United States to study engineering; although, his move seemed like a long shot. Much to their surprise, her husband was offered a scholarship to attend school. Uneasy about following him to a new country, she finally succumbed to her parents’ caution with a plan in place in case things didn’t work out for him in the United States.
When her husband was offered a job, she knew it was time to join him, but it came with a lot of hesitation.
“It was an easy decision, but not an easy decision,” she said. “I was scared. It was all foreign. There was a lot to learn. There was a gap that you try to understand.”
In addition, without a work permit in the United States, she could not work as a dentist as she had in Romania.
Upon arrival in the states, Dr. Goldenberg soon realized that one of those perceived gaps, language, was not as major a hurdle as she had imagined.
“When I came, English was inside of me,” she said. “I watched TV and listened to the radio to learn practical, everyday English.”
As a young mother, she enrolled her nearly three year-old daughter in daycare so she could learn some English as well.
“At least, my daughter knew my name in case something happened at the daycare, but she didn’t understand any of the teacher’s directions,” said Dr. Goldenberg, who was confused at the time as to whether to continue speaking Romanian or to focus on English at home with her daughter. After a conference with the teacher, which would turn into quite a revelation, the young mother learned that a new language, in this case English, would be more readily developed, if she continued to use and build her native language, Romanian.
Now 27, her daughter speaks both languages and is working on obtaining her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree.
Another surprise for the newcomer to America and trained dentist was the country’s immense interest in dental health.
“I learned how much the country cared about teeth,” she said. “It was unbelievable – flossing, rinsing, and brushing. People really cared about healthy teeth and healthy people.”
While Dr. Goldenberg tried to deal with the newness of America and the vast cultural differences, the family moved into a small, sparsely furnished apartment. Fortunately, unbeknown to them, a modest scholarship for her husband was secured by a college advisor.
“We were so surprised,” she said. “We didn’t know she had completed all the paperwork. How wonderful it was to have someone looking after us. We didn’t have much but we had enough to survive on. We had to be resourceful but I would be lying if I said I was not afraid. I was very scared. You don’t know how many times I wanted to put on my shoes and just go home.”
The kindness and good guidance of people, however, allowed her to move forward, Dr. Goldenberg recalled. In another touching moment, an acquaintance heard about their situation and organized members of a church to shower the family with items they were lacking including dishes, sheets, towels, mugs and a coffee pot. The recollection of the act of kindness moved Dr. Goldenberg to tears.
“I felt an amazing amount of gratitude,” she said. “They loved me and accepted me, no matter where I came from, what language I spoke or what religion we were. They gave because we were just human beings in need.”
Dr. Goldenberg said the early experiences were profound and life changing.
“It’s like a ripple effect,” she said. “You cannot throw a rock into some water and not get a ripple. The people who helped me probably don’t know how much they helped me, but also likely don’t know how many others they affected. I’m sure there are many.”
The once bewildered newcomer to the United States went on to graduate with highest honors from the University of Texas Health Science Center in 1997 and completed her Orthodontic Residency at the University of Texas in Houston in 2000. She received numerous prestigious awards, has written several abstracts that have been published in the Journal of Dental Research and is an active member of the American Association of Orthodontists. In addition, Dr. Goldenberg volunteers with the Texas Mission of Mercy, a mobile dental clinic that travels around the state providing basic dental care at no charge to uninsured Texans.
Twenty-five years after her initial days and years in America, Dr. Goldenberg feels she has a debt to pay and wants to share the kindness she received and impact others. She set up a program where she made donations to mainly area non-profit agencies selected by her customers.
“We wanted our patients to give where they wanted to give and found people who were doing amazing things,” she said.
Currently, the focus is education.
“I believe teachers can really change lives,” said Dr. Goldenberg. “One day these kids will group up and they will impact the world as business owners and leaders. If we can help create life experiences, they can create amazing lives for themselves.”
The newly launched program, “Embrace Education,” donates $100 to the school of each new patient who begins Full or Phase II orthodontic treatment during the 2016-17 school year. Adult patients may elect to have the donation made to the school or charity of their choice.
“If kids do something like giving and link pleasure to it, they will likely repeat the behavior,” Dr. Goldenberg said. “Education is a big thread in my life and we need to support education.”
The orthodontist, who is based in Georgetown but serves Liberty Hill and the entire area, said she is fortunate to be doing what she does.
“I love teeth and love people, and in this profession I get to do both,” she said. “It’s not just about straightening teeth, it’s about learning and affecting lives. I love my job! People are touching me and helping me change and become better. They leave me with their footprints.”