From her high school days to a leader in organized dentistry in Iowa, Dr. Heather Heddens (’80 D.D.S.) is a true Iowan trailblazer. Dr. Heddens’ passion for teaching, learning, and her profession are some of her more striking characteristics. These passions have driven her to great success. She sees this work as carrying on a legacy that was first passed down to her from her mentors, and she is passing that legacy along to her students.
Dr. Heddens grew up in Mediapolis, Iowa where she was a forward (forwards played exclusively on offense; guards played exclusively on defense) for the Mediapolis Bullettes, a well-known and successful girl’s 6-on-6 basketball team from 1969 to 1973. Search YouTube for ‘1973 Iowa Girls State Basketball Mediapolis’ if you want to see Dr. Heddens in action when her team won the state championship.
Like her two older sisters, Dr. Heddens went to Iowa as an undergraduate. She had originally intended to complete a degree in dental hygiene, but Dr. Heddens’ career trajectory was changed when her advisor at the time, Dr. Clayton Shalla (’61 D.D.S., ’69 M.S.) looked at her academic records and skillset, and said, “You should be in dental school.”
“My veins bleed black and gold, so I only applied to Iowa for dental school,” Dr. Heddens said with a bounce in her voice.
At Iowa, Dr. Heddens was one of 9 women in her class, and it was a great educational experience for her. When she started practicing in the Air Force just out of dental school, she began to see the Iowa difference. In her Air Force cohort, there was an extensive training process to make sure that a newly minted dentist was able to handle a full load of patients.
As one would expect of an Iowa graduate, Dr. Heddens was up to the task and she remembers her Air Force mentor telling her, “You graduated from Iowa so, we know you can handle it.”
“It was an honor to serve my country,” Dr. Heddens said of her career in the Air Force, and she added, that it was a privilege “to give excellent dental care to those who hadn’t had access to that kind of dental care before.”
After leaving the Air Force, Dr. Heddens began working in private practice in California. During that time, she would come back to visit her family and see Hawkeye games, and she really longed to come back home to Iowa. In 1987, she did just that. She started her own practice in Columbus Junction, Iowa where she served her community for 15 years. She also started another practice in Washington, Iowa, which was where her husband, Steve Olson, was a banker for many years, and she served there for 14 years.
When Dr. Heddens came back to Iowa, she also started teaching as an adjunct faculty member for the College of Dentistry in Family Dentistry and Oral Diagnosis. She has been working on Tuesdays in Family Dentistry ever since, which she calls “my sanity day.”
For most of the week, Dr. Heddens would operate her private practice, and as is typical in private practice, she would come across weird and unusual cases at times. Being with colleagues, like Dr. Vince Williams (’57 D.D.S., ’80 M.S.) and Dr. Ana Diaz-Arnold (’87 M.S.), at the college was an invaluable resource.
“Teaching for the college was key to my development as a dentist,” Dr. Heddens explained. These experiences taught Dr. Heddens a valuable lesson that all dentists have to learn at some point: “Don’t be afraid to say, ‘I don’t know, but I’ll find out.’ Ask your colleagues, fellow dentists, or mentors for help!”
Dr. Heddens’ students have also benefitted from her teaching and experiences. She was named Adjunct Faculty of the Year by the Class of 2011, and she also sold her Columbus Junction practice in 2002 to Dr. Willy Wever (’02 D.D.S.) and her Washington practice to Dr. Chad Wiese (’03 D.D.S.). She knew both young men from teaching them as an adjunct faculty member, so she knew that the communities she served were in good hands.
Two of Dr. Heddens’ Iowa mentors, Dr. Mike Leary (’68 D.D.S., ’84 M.S.) and Dr. Jim Harris (’79 D.D.S.), also shaped her professional life in deep and profound ways. Following in their footsteps, Dr. Heddens is a fierce advocate for dentists, particularly young dentists, to get involved in organized dentistry. Dr. Heddens is proud of her service to and the lifelong friends she has from the Southeast District, IDA and the ADA’s 10th District. She ultimately went on to serve as president of the Iowa Dental Association in 2009 and on the American Dental Association Council on Access, Prevention and Intraprofessional Relations (CAPIR), and she encourages her students to continue that work.
“We have to protect our profession and keep it safe for our patients and ourselves,” Dr. Heddens explained.
Dr. Heddens is also involved with the OKU National Dental Honor Society. She was president of Iowa’s Mu Chapter in 2002 and has served as the treasurer since then. She also serves on the Admissions Committee for the College. Personally, she is also involved in her church, First United Methodist in Iowa City, and its bell choir. She has also been making masks to donate, and she was up to 196 (surely more by the time you read this!).
Given Dr. Heddens’ successful career in private practice and as an adjunct faculty member, along with her commitment to the University, the College, and the profession as whole, the University of Iowa Dental Alumni Association and the College of Dentistry recognize Dr. Heddens as the 2020 Alumnus of the Year.