It's Been a Long Road to Dentistry for 2013 Graduate

Susanny Thenus
When Susanny (Sunny) Thenus walks across the stage at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on June 14 to receive her lilac hood, signifying receipt of her doctor of dental medicine degree, she will undoubtedly be thinking about the 20 years it took to become a dentist.

“I started dental school in Indonesia in 1993 and will finish in Oregon in 2013,” said Sunny, who turns 40 in September. “I beat all the odds to be where I am.”

Sunny’s road to dentistry began in Jakarta, Indonesia, where her Chinese parents migrated before Sunny was born. Born at 28 weeks in 1970s Indonesia without any advanced technologies, Sunny’s doctors did not expect her to live, or if she did live, to have profound disabilities.

However, Sunny grew up just fine, graduating from high school, and beginning dental school in Indonesia in 1993. “My passion for dentistry came from my own traumatic experience with the dentist,” she said. “Dentistry in Indonesia is performed without x-rays or anesthesia and I endured many painful extractions and restorations. I believed there had to be a better way to perform dentistry.”

Following her high school sweetheart to the United States, she transferred to Oregon State University in 1995 and because she could not enter dental school as an international student, switched her major to nutrition and food management, graduating (and getting married) in 1998 and taking a job as a food manager.

About that time, there were riots in Jakarta and her family lost their home and business. Sunny’s mother and brother came to the United States as refugees and Sunny supported them.

After one year working as a food manager, Sunny “realized that I needed to come back and continue what I started” five years earlier— becoming a dentist. Since she was not familiar with dentistry in the U.S., Sunny “started her journey back” by graduating from Portland Community College (PCC) Sylvania’s dental assisting program in 2000, and she began working for Willamette Dental. The same year she received permanent residency.

“After working for a while, I knew dentistry was my passion and my calling,” she said. “Unfortunately, when I was ready to apply for dental school, I got pregnant and I switched gears to become a dental hygienist. Sunny graduated from the PCC dental hygiene program in 2004.

After working as a dental hygienist for a few years [for Stephen F. Taylor, D.M.D. `81, in Scappoose, with whom she still helps on school breaks], I knew I had to give dental school a try because that is what I wanted from the beginning.”

Because OHSU School of Dentistry does not accept overseas credits, Sunny had to re-take all of her science courses. “It took me two years to re-take my science classes with a full-time dental hygiene job [for Misook Kim, D.M.D. `91, in Beaverton, Ore., with whom she still works part-time on Saturdays] and now I had two children,” she said.

Sunny applied to OHSU in 2008, the same year she was sworn in as a U.S. citizen. “My family was settled here so I couldn’t move anywhere,” she said. “I knew it was a one-time shot to get in to OHSU because my family needed me to support them. I knew if I didn’t make it, I had to accept that my dream may not be fulfilled. But if I didn’t try, I would never know.

“No word can describe the feeling I had when I got an acceptance letter because I was given one more chance to finish my dream to be a dentist,” said Sunny. “I made it all the way with two kids and a loving husband of 15 years [Fenardi Thenus, an Intel design engineer] that supported me, with a part-time job. I believe I made it this far for a reason.”

After graduation, Sunny hopes to go into private practice. “For sure, I want to give time to serve those with no access to dental care. My plan is to involve my whole family, especially my kids [Wesley, 12, and Westin, 7]. I want my kids to know how lucky they are to be born here, to learn to share, and how to be good citizens.

“There is nothing you can’t do if you put your heart, mind, and determination into it,” said Sunny. “It’s never too late to reach your dream.”