Tuesday, January 17, 2012

(66) A Pioneer in Female Dentistry........Dr. Stephanie Mihalich Sebastian


         Today marks the sixth anniversary of the death of my mother, Dr. Stephanie M. Sebastian at the age of 97.  She was an amazing person and I think that you'll enjoy reading the Eulogy I gave at her funeral, the Obituary, and "A Few Postscript and Memories".  My brother, Deacon John assisted in the funeral Mass and gave the homily.  My youngest brother, Fred, was a pall bearer and died a few months later on October 11.  The other pall bearers were Elmer Foley, Bob Foley, Edward Eld, Joe Loya, and her son, Paul. 

          In the photo on the left Mom is the maid of honor at her sister Martha's wedding in 1933 when she was 25 years old.  The photo on the right was taken in 2002, a year after moving into our home, when she was 94.  Jaga took care of her for the last five years of her life.  Mom died four years later under Jaga's watchful eye in our living room.  In the Sebastian family photo with Mom on the extreme right are Paul and Jaga in front of him.  John-Paul (13) is in the back of his grandmother.  Stephanie Mary (11) is left of her big brother.   Naomi (8) is to the left of her mother and Joseph (5) is to the right of her.


By her son, Paul at the Funeral Mass in St. Joseph Church, Duquesne-Pennsylvania on January 21, 2006 after her death on January 17 and at the Memorial Mass in St. Louis Church, Gallipolis-Ohio on January 26, 2006.

        Our Aunt Lilly wrote in her memoirs that she was called an Energizer battery. All the Mihalich girls were like Energizer batteries. They kept going and going and going. They all lived into their 80s and beyond. But even a Mihalich battery can’t go on forever. My wife Jaga’s tender loving care 24/7 helped her to hold on by sheer will power for almost a year after a massive stroke.  The youngest and last of the five sisters died in her daughter-in-law's arms in our living room.

       For the last 60 years, Mom tried to keep her true age a secret. “Paul, don’t tell people how old I am”. But now I can reveal it…..97 because she’s again young and beautiful and sharp mentally as you saw her in the Powerpoint presentation my daughter, Stephanie put together for the viewing last night.

        I am sure that she’s having a wonderful reunion with her four sisters…..Irene (Foley), Martha (Eld), Lilly (Gulyassy), and Ella (Voloszinovich) plus our father, John, grandmother Olga, & grandfather Rev. Vladimir (Mihalich), our uncles Geza (Foley), Aksel (Eld), and Rev. Emil (Gulyassy) and many friends as my mother-in-law Pani Fredericka Gajda, Pani Margaret Loya, Pani Elizabeth Loya, Bonnie Marks, and our wonderful neighbors.

        Mom loved to sing and play the piano. All she needed was an audience of one. I’ll bet she serenaded St. Peter at the Perly Gates with her favorite song: ‘O What a Beautiful Morning”. Even though it’s cold and overcast here, it must be a beautiful day there with the Lord.

       Mom suffered much over the last 20 years, but had the iron will to keep going and offering it all up to God as a very powerful prayer for her loved ones.

Dr. Stephanie Mihalich Sebastian as a freshly minted dentist in 1934 or so (University of Pittsburgh 1928 - 1933).  She's about 26 years old here.  Her dental office was over the First National Bank of Duquesne, PA on the second floor.
       My mother was a pioneer in female dentistry. Excelling as a dental student, the University of Pittsburgh Dental School (Class of 1933) considered hiring her as an instructor until a male chauvinist cried; “Over my dead body will a woman serve on this faculty”. That poor soul must be doing somersaults in his grave.

        Mom loved her patients and they loved her, even coming back for routine work when she was 90. Most gratifying was seeing old patients who came to the wake last night, even at considerable sacrifice and pain in climbing those steps. Some had her as a dentist when they were kids in the 1930s and 1940s. Yesterday, one old timer related that: while a soldier during World War II, army dentists raved at the quality of her work. Mom treated every tooth as a pearl and with her feminine touch did everything she could to save every tooth she ever worked on. She practiced what she preached, taking all her natural teeth to the grave at 97.

        In her day, even women assumed that men did better work. Thus it was very frustrating when she had to fix botched up work of the guys.

        Mom was horrified at how much dentists charge today since she used her dental work to serve people, not to take them. Thus she charged much less than the going rate especially during the depression days and before dental insurance. Mom was happy to do free work for nuns and priests. However, the word got around and a young nun came to her saying, “My Mother Superior sent me to you because your work is free”, not even asking “how much?” She didn’t like to be taken for granted.

        She was a great mother too, cheering us on in success and encouraging us to keep on fighting, loving, and praying during setbacks and discouragement. She was proud during our victories and suffered through our defeats. She prayed us through our lives and certainly is praying for us now, more than ever.

        Thanks for everything, Mom. We love you. A Dios y con Dios which from the Spanish means to God and with God. Good-by for now until we’re all together again in another happy reunion in eternity. Thank you all for coming and we hope to have the honor of your presence at the lunch downstairs.

In 1962 Mom decided to build an addition to her home for a dental office.  She then upgraded her equipment to the standards of the 1960s.  This photo dates from 1970 or so, making her about 62 years old.  That's a spittoon to the left of the chair.  Behind her instrument drawers on the right is her small lab and a small bathroom.  On her right there's a tall waste basket she would open with her foot.  In the foreground on the left is her desk, records, and a phone.  Notice the  switch for the drill just off of her left foot.  After over 60 years her left foot was bent at an angle and her fingers were disfigured.  Severe arthritis had a lot to do with that.  Replacement knee surgery in 1985 or so did not help much.  Mom never did have a high speed drill.  In fact she preferred the older drill to have more control and a better feel when getting close to the nerve.   For that reason Dr. Stephanie avoided numbing up a patient for routine fillings.  She also adjusted the height of the chair with a foot driven hydraulic pump.

Obituary:  Dr. Stephanie M. Sebastian Dead at Age 97
August 30, 1908 - January 17, 2006

Published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, McKeesport (PA) Daily News,
Pittsburgh Tribune Review, and the Gallipolis (Ohio) Daily Tribune January 2006

            After a massive stroke in April and five stays in the hospital, Dr. Stephanie Sebastian, 97 passed into eternity on January 17.  Born in Rozsadomb, Austria-Hungary (present day Bodrujal-Slovakia) on August 30, 1908, she immigrated with her parents, Olga and Rev. Vladimir Mihalich to the United States in 1921.  She graduated from Duquesne High School with honor in 1928.  Her father was pastor of St. Peter & Paul Byzantine Catholic Church in Duquesne, PA (1926-1943).

            Stephanie was a pioneer in female dentistry, graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 1933 with the highest score in her class on the State Board Examination and practiced in Duquesne until her retirement at the age of 92.  Dr. Sebastian was unique in that she maintained her dental license to serve her patients for nearly 70 years, a feat perhaps unequaled.  During the time that she practiced dentistry, Dr. Sebastian was active in various professional societies. including the American Dental Association (ADA), the Women’s Club of Duquesne, and the Hungarian Professional Society of Pittsburgh.

            She is preceded in death by her husband, Dr. John J. S. Sebastian (1979), a researcher for the U. S. Bureau of Mines.  She is survived by her three sons and two daughters-in-law, Dr. Paul and Jadwiga of Rio Grande-Ohio, Rev. Mr. John and Kathleen of Hinsdale-Illinois, and Frederick of McKeesport.  Stephanie also has 8 grandchildren and 6 great-grandchildren.

            Visiting hours will be at the Skovranko Funeral Home on the second block of Commonwealth Ave., Duquesne from 6 to 9 pm on Friday.  The funeral will be at 10 am the next day, January 21 at St. Joseph Church, West Grant Ave, Duquesne.  In lieu of flowers, a donation may be made to St. Joseph Church or to the St. Louis Church (Gallipolis, Ohio) Project Fund.

A Few Postscripts and Memories

            Mom made the highest score in her class of 150 (only three women) in her Pennsylvania State Boards as a 25 year old girl in the University of Pittsburgh Class of 1933.  At the time pre-dental and dental school was five years in the University.  She was rightfully proud of her achievement as a pioneer in female dentistry.  As part of her European mentality of the time where titles were very important, she enjoyed being called doctor and signed all of her checks as Dr. Stephanie M. Sebastian.  My father did the same.

            She started her practice in Duquesne, Pennsylvania, a steel town on the Monongahela River 12 miles south of Pittsburgh.  The country was in the depths of the depression; unemployment was at 24%; and she would charge $2.00 per filling.  Of course that would buy what $20 - $30 would today.  She could not turn anybody away, nor did she have the heart to charge much when the patient's family was hurting.  Thus she didn’t make much money in dentistry.  Only when U.S. Steel introduced dental insurance, did she charge closer to the going rate.  Nevertheless, she was horrified by the amounts dentists charged at the turn of the century.

         Once her three boys started to come along (1938, 1942, and 1952), she reduced her practice to afternoons until 6 pm and Saturday morning till 1 pm.  Wednesdays and Sundays were her days off.  It was difficult when she was pregnant to climb the steps to her dental office on the high second floor of the First National Bank Building on Grant and First Street.  Because of so much standing, she developed varicose veins and had two miscarriages.  She couldn’t hold a baby for more than 8 months.  I myself was a preemie at 7 ½ months.  In her eighties she had to have replacement knee surgery.
Mom's first dental office was something like this.

          Mom's dental office resembled the 1930 vintage dental office in the photo above........the lamps, the electric drill with a foot pedal, spittoon, sink, hand and foot operated hydraulic dental chair, cabinet with drawers for instruments and a table for mixing amalgam with silver powder, a window in front of the chair, etc,  In 1962 she decided to move her dental office to our home.  The First National Bank Building was torn down a year or two later.  
              As a dentist, Mom did it all.  She was her own receptionist and dental hygienist, doing her own cleaning.  She made her own crowns, bridges, and dentures in her little laboratory (about 6 ft. by 15 ft.) adjoining her office until she reached old age.  However, she had someone else take x-rays when needed.  I suppose that was typical through the 60s or 70s.  The dosage was much higher than it is today when x-rays are routinely taken every year.  As she got older Mom would farm out difficult extractions to an exodontist.  At the end of the day after taking care of a waiting room full of kids, she would mop the floor by herself.  Mom was even her own accountant, keeping track of her expenses and receipts to calculate her net income for the tax return which she also did.

            She would take calls and appointments at home at almost any hour, even driving to her dental office for tooth aches and other emergencies.  Often it was not simply “take an aspirin and call me in the morning”.  For the sick and invalids she would take a portable foot powered drill and do dental work in the patient’s home.

            Mom did not have the benefit of the high speed drill.  She preferred not to use pain killers because she could better sense when she was getting too close to the nerve.  The dentist controlled the drill with a foot activated switch.  After years of bending her leg to operate it, her left leg actually became deformed.    

            In 1962 she contracted a carpenter to build a dental office on the balcony over the garage adjoining our three bedroom home (built in 1941 for $7,000).  She dreamed of doing that for years. She replaced her old equipment with the latest of the 1960s.   That gave her considerable flexibility in scheduling patients according to their convenience and hers too.  She kept her porcelain for fillings in an old refrigerator in the basement.  Around supper time she would heat up the food or light the oven between patients.  Seldom did the food get burnt or overcooked.

            Mom advocated brushing teeth after every meal, but if that was not possible she believed an apple was a better than nothing substitute.  She should have added a glass of water on top of that since fruit has some sugar.  She herself used baking soda (NaHCO3) to brush her teeth. 
            Mom kept up her Pennsylvania dental license until her nineties when she would do routine fillings and cleanings for her old patients despite her crooked arthritic fingers.  Mom loved her profession and she loved her patients.

        Mom wasn’t all Dentistry.  She loved to play the piano, including the classics, Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin.  She would love to sing while playing.  I remember many an evening when she would play the piano in the living room and sing me to sleep in my bed upstairs.  Her soprano voice was so good that she sang the National Anthem at Hungarian functions.  She did much of her own sewing by hand and on her sewing machine, did the laundry, the housecleaning, etc.  Of course, she had a maid from 1938 to 1945 and then Grandma Mihalich treated us like her own until 1962.  Mom loved to read the great books and only watched television for the 7 pm CBS News with Walter Cronkite.

Mom always was a very faithful Catholic.  I don’t think that she ever missed Mass on Sunday until her debilitating massive stroke at the age of 96.…….perhaps in her 80s when the weather was bad.  Her son Fred drove her, since she didn't drive much any more.  Despite a three foot snowfall during Thanksgiving 1950 and the following day, we walked a mile to church on Sunday.  Mom would fervently pray a decade of the rosary every night.  She was active in the parish, was a member of the Catholic Daughters of America, the Duquesne Women's Club, and was a member of the parish council of St. Joseph Church for a time.

Mom would never be late for anything.  My father was the opposite.  Thus Mom would go to the early Mass and Dad to the last Mass available in Duquesne or Homestead at noon.

Having lived in Austria-Hungary (present day Slovakia) through World War I, struggling to make it as an immigrant family of a Byzantine Catholic priest, and the Depression, Mom was on the frugal side yet generous with what Dad left and her own savings.  She was a saver and taught us how to save.  Today that frugality is helping to get our kids through college.  Of course, Jaga made it possible by taking care of Mom for the last five years of her life.  A nursing home would have quickly eaten up her savings.

At the same time Mom liked to shop and dress up as fitting for a professional woman of her time.  She enjoyed wearing her mink stole and some jewelry without being extravagant.  I never saw Mom in slacks or jeans; she even wore a dress around the house.  In the summer she would wear shorts and sun bathe in the yard.

Mom suffered greatly in much of her life and knew how to bear it.......two miscarriages, bad arthritis in her fingers and legs, the aches and pains of aging, a rocky marriage with its ups and downs, the setbacks of her sons, the mental illness and breakdowns of her youngest son, Fred.  Through it all I never saw her cry.  She bore everything patiently and offered it up to the Lord as a dynamic prayer.

Dad was a brilliant research chemist/chemical engineer and ambitious, a high achiever.  Thus he would often talk about higher positions and was involved in different ventures.  That took him to Waynesville, North Carolina for  a mica mine venture (1943-45), the Illinois Institute of Gas Technology in Chicago (1945-47), and the United States Bureau of Mines in Morgantown, WV until his retirement in 1969 at the mandatory age of 70.  (he died ten years later).  He wanted Mom to move with him, but that meant transporting her heavy equipment and restarting her dental practice in a strange place.  She would not move until Dad would decide definitively to stay in one place.  Since Morgantown was less than two hours away from Pittsburgh, he would come home only on weekends, giving us at least some family life.  On the other days Mom was in essence a single mother in managing the household.  Dad was faithful and sent her two checks a month to maintain the home and family.  He was very kind and charitable in helping others.  Dad taught us many lessons for life and to strengthen our Faith, but was strict and had a temper.  Grandma Mihalich was very dedicated to us.......helping with household chores and taking care of the three children, but did not get along with her son-in-law.

It was an unusual dynamic that brought problems and some conflict.  They would forgive and continue on.  The graces of the sacrament of Matrimony kept the marriage together and got them through the rough spots.  Thus Mom's life was full of achievement and joys, sorrows and crosses.  She continued on with faith, fidelity, love, and courage.      

A lasting memory was traveling all over Europe together in my Volkswagen Bug and a borrowed tent in 1962 when she was 54 and I was in the Army.  Our month long trip took us through France and the chateaux country; Pamplona and San Sebastian, Spain; Monaco; Italy from Turin, Florence, and Rome to Pompeii and Naples; Innsbruck, Austria; Germany from Munich to both sides of the Berlin Wall.  Unforgettable was the almost glowing face of St. Pope John XXIII full of goodness and love at a general audience as he was carried through the crowd on an elevated chair.

Mom prayed me through my student years at Carnegie Mellon (1960), 2 ½ years with Allied Chemical, 14 years as a lay missionary in Peru (1965-1982), teaching at Franciscan University of Steubenville (1980-1983), Wheeling Jesuit University (1988-89), and the University of Rio Grande (1995-2005) as well as the long road to my doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh (MBA) and Kent State University (1994).  Thank you, Mom for everything and keep praying for us.     

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