Standing at a busy restaurant counter during the lunch rush, Roop Mayall approaches the cashier to place her order.

“Name for the order, please?” he asks.

She opens her mouth to say her name, but she can’t make a sound. She begins to feel the heat of anxiety build inside of her.

The cashier repeats himself: “What’s your name, Miss?”

She tries again to say her name but is overwhelmed and entangled in her own words.

After what feels like an eternity and with a sea of people waiting behind her to order, she is finally able to produce the word, “Roop.”


One of 3 million who stutter

Situations likes these are not uncommon for people who struggle with speech disorders.

Three million Americans suffer from a stutter, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Mayall DDS ’18 is one of them.

“For as long as I can remember, I have had a stammer,” she said. “Anything from public speaking to simple interactions with people to saying my name has always given me extreme anxiety.”

Growing up in Davis, near Sacramento, Mayall always knew she sounded different from other kids, but she had a supportive group of friends and family so it never bothered her.

“As a child, I never let my stutter get to me personally,” she said. “I first felt the negative impact of my stutter in college. I felt an enormous pressure to hide my stutter. That’s when I started avoiding my friends and family.”

As Mayall became older, she started to realize how her speech inadvertently caused others to judge her in both personal and professional settings.

“It was one of those unfair truths,” Mayall said. “Almost every speaking situation was clouded with negative emotions, from briefly introducing myself to participating in school presentations.”

Stuttering became a great source of anxiety, and her avoidance tactics were starting to fall short.

“It was simply exhausting,” she said. “It took more energy to avoid situations than to actually deal with my stutter.”


Just breathe

From a young age, Mayall remembers going to various speech pathologists, but she said that while they all had the best intentions, their interventions never worked.

With the support of her family, in high school Mayall enrolled in The McGuire Programme, a worldwide community that helps participants overcome stuttering using breathing and other techniques.

“It’s not a cure by any means, but rather an amazing support system,” she said.

The program teaches a breathing technique used by opera singers called “costal breathing.” It also incorporates psychological approaches known as “non-avoidance” and ways to counteract the freezing during speech or conversation.

“I still have days when I’m struggling with my speech, but now I know what I must do, and I have tools to make that change,” she said. “To me that has been life-changing.”


A dream come true for a sister act

Mayall pursued a double major in biology and psychology at the University of California, Davis and then a post-baccalaureate degree from San Francisco State University.

It was during her undergraduate years that Mayall and her sister, Ostrow School of Dentistry graduate Isha Mayall DDS ’17, discussed how rewarding it would be to pursue careers in dentistry and eventually practice together.

“Although sometimes we disagree, we both have our own strengths, and we make a great team,” said Isha Mayall, who was accepted to Ostrow in the fall of 2013. Soon after, her sister applied and was accepted in the fall of 2014.

“It was a dream come true, not only to attend dental school with my sister, but to be accepted to a prestigious dental school such as USC,” Roop Mayall said.

Although fortune had smiled on her, she was still dealing with her stutter on a day-to-day basis.

“It came as no surprise when I started dental school,” she said. “I was juggling not only trying to understand the dental aspect but also being able to communicate with multiple people — from faculty to patients on a daily basis.”

As a first-year dental student delivering a presentation on medical and dental differential diagnoses based on a case study, Mayall recalled that her anxiety came rushing back.

“I had practiced all night with one of my best friends. Still, I remember walking into the room and getting this overwhelming feeling of anxiety,” she said. “I managed to stay calm and, although I struggled, I worked up the courage to do my best.”


Don’t let insecurity define you

As Mayall finishes her studies at Ostrow, she is already looking forward to the next chapter in her life. She plans to spend some quality time with her husband, Mandeep, and practice dentistry with her sister.

She also hopes to write a book about her experience trying to overcome speaking obstacles in the health and medical field.

“I would love to inspire others with any sort of insecurity that being a health care professional could be rewarding,” she said. “At some point, your circumstances will put you at a crossroads between self-acceptance and self-doubt — just don’t let your limitations keep you tied down.”

Mayall added that her time at USC, interacting with faculty members, colleagues and most importantly patients, has really helped transform her.

“I have sincerely reached a level of comfort in my own skin. This doesn’t mean I am perfect or cured, it just means that I have learned to respect myself and not let my insecurity define me.”

— Yasmine Pezeshkpour