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Transgender speaker shows students importance of understanding

Dr. Anne Koch speaks at a College of Dental Medicine diversity and inclusion seminar

Dr. Anne Koch
Dr. Anne Koch says doctors and dentists need to understand and have sympathy for transgender patients. An estimated 21,000 people identify as transgender in South Carolina. Photos by Sarah Pack
Helen Adams | | January 31, 2018

Dental students, faculty and staff at the Medical University of South Carolina packed an auditorium to hear endodontist Anne Koch talk about her transition from male to female and how they should treat transgender patients.

“Ever since I was about 5 years old I had this feeling that something was not quite right,” she said. “And you compartmentalize it. You hide it.”

She grew up in Long Island as Ken Koch, “a really rough-and-tumble little boy. Two things I cared about all through school: academics and athletics.”

Koch had no interest in girls. “First date I ever had was the junior prom. It was absolutely horrible. Here’s my date with this beautiful dress and I’m thinking, ‘God, that looks so great to wear.’”

Koch stopped playing sports in college due to discomfort with the atmosphere in the locker room. “Every day of my life, I thought at some point about being a woman, becoming a woman.”

Students, faculty and staff in auditorium

Dr. Anne Koch speaks to a full house in the Basic Science Building's auditorium.
Koch earned a doctorate in dental medicine and certificate in endodontics from the University of Pennsylvania, founded the postdoctoral program in endodontics at Harvard University and started a technology and development company.

But Koch never lost the sense that she was meant to be a woman. She finally acted on that feeling about seven years ago after a health scare. “It was in May of 2011 when I got diagnosed with a squamous cell cancer. The squamous cell cancer I had was actually on the back of my hand.”

That was it, she said. “It was over. O-V-A-H. I have to transition.”

Koch, now 68 years old, told the MUSC students and faculty about the surgical steps involved in becoming a woman along with the hormones and the fallout. She said friends disappeared, and her brother struggled with the change.

“He said, ‘I’m really supportive.’ I said, ‘You’re not supportive.’ He said, ‘I am supportive because I don’t want you to go to hell.’ I’m thinking, 'What kind of support is that?'”

Koch’s speech, part of an MUSC College of Dental Medicine diversity and inclusion seminar, gave the students a first-person perspective on what life may be like for the estimated 1.4 million Americans who identify as transgender, including about 21,000 in South Carolina, according to a report by The Williams Institute.

Sarandeep Huja, dean of the MUSC College of Dental Medicine, said it’s important for dentists to learn interpersonal skills along with technical abilities. “Our hearts, minds and our compassion extend to individuals from all walks of life. Understanding another human being allows us to grow as a community.”

Koch gave the students tips for treating transgender patients and making them feel comfortable, including:

  • Ask how the person would like to be addressed
  • See gender as a continuum
  • Find out if the patient is taking hormones
  • Don’t pepper the patient’s family members or partner with “trans” questions
  • Have office forms that reflect diverse gender identities such as gender non-conforming
  • Offer gender-neutral restrooms

“You have to have an awareness and a sympathy and an understanding of these patients, please,” Koch said. “This is about humanity. It’s about being a health care provider.”

MUSC on Forbes list of best employers for diversity (MUSC News, Jan. 26, 2018) 

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