If you read Dentaltown Magazine, you may have received the edited, paper version of this article today in your snail mail box. But because I don’t have to make room for saliva ejector advertisements in the sidebar (seriously, this article helps sell SALIVA EJECTORS!) you can enjoy the original here in its more raw form.
A hygienist’s answer to “What do you do?”
by Trish Walraven RDH, BS
You’re at a gathering of acquaintances, a general hob-nobbery of casual conversing, one of those social obligations that you love/hate because you’re really more of an outgoing introvert, someone who plays well with others but enjoys their quiet, navel-gazing world too. Sooner or later you know that the question will be asked.
“So, what do you do?”
No hesitation here. You know what your profession is. You have a title, a position, a calling.
Then that inner part of your thinking begins to twitch.
You weren’t asked about your job title, actually. You were asked a direct question: What do you do?
The typical reaction of hearing that you’re a dentist or hygienist involves a full disregard of the art and compassion that you put into your profession. People want to tell you about their bad experiences as a child, or how much they hate you (but don’t take it personally!). They just nod, warily, quietly, at your response and quickly think of a way to change the subject.
Instead of giving away the conversation and letting it slide into other people’s thought bubbles, then, you can steer the dialogue back to the original question, and the feel-good answer you’ve prepared instead.
“I take care of people’s teeth.”
You’re a regular Mother Theresa now, aren’t you? The way you dedicate your life’s work to helping others, it’s so freaking noble. This response elicits a smile of comfort and familiarity from your obligatory small-talk partner. The conversation can move forward now that your profession has been deemed socially acceptable.
An hour later, driving home, you’re blissfully alone with your thoughts, rewinding your earlier social interactivity, musing over the highlights, and you really, deeply, ask yourself in hindsight, “what do I do?”
I can’t speak for dentists, but if you’re a dental hygienist, you do some pretty strange things, actually.
First of all, perfection to you is wave-shaped. It’s the curve of a thin scallop of attached pinkness that anoints each interproximal space with a coral-tipped point of the healthiest gingiva imaginable. Anything less than this in your patients’ mouths is limbo. Chaos is the reason your job exists, but you always hunger for order and balance. To achieve this imagined perfection in a mouth that is not optimal, then, means that you often resort to some diversions along the way. It’s about the journey, not the destination, right?
How do you handle the patient whose lower anterior linguals are piled with a couple of grams of Grade A calcium phosphate? Sure, you could just chunk the calculus off. But sometimes, when you’re feeling a little dastardly, you carve out the top and the bottom of the tartar evenly, so that you’ve left a neat chalky white mustache, complete with curlicues. With artistic satisfaction, you turn your attention back to your duty and politely erase the Banksy-esque dental graffiti from your patient’s teeth.
This is not something you tell people that you do.
You also tell no one that your deepest fear is running into anything artificial while you’re cleaning someone’s teeth. Your ultrasonic scaler turns into a fierce lead pencil in those situations, which means not only that you are wearing down your precious metal antennae into useless nubs, but also that you’re leaving dark lines where there was once only whiteness. Every last bit of old orthodontic cement has now been revealed like a charcoal rubbing, thanks to you. And you would never admit to leaving a grey streak on a brand new porcelain crown. How could you slip like that? You hope like heck that the prophy paste will get that scary line off before anyone notices.
When it comes to things that you enjoy, then, there’s a bit of hesitation about sharing those stories as well. Like hovering around the periapical abcess that’s begging to be relieved? Or when you’re spraying baking soda slurry under a bridge and the patient becomes aware that its odor speaks more than the thousand words that you could ever say about superfloss? To you the stink is like scoring a point. Or why your trophy at the end of a particularly difficult appointment is a 2×2 gauze loaded with something that looks like buckshot, but is really your patient’s carefully extracted calculus? Fun times.
Probably the most difficult part of your career, though, has to do with patient management. Unless you’re regularly disengaging people from their mouths via nitrous oxide, there are forceful tongues, and lip pulls, and saliva ropes, and people who forget that it’s safe to swallow their own spit. Suck. Suck. Suck. Ten times a minute. At least this way they’re remembering to breathe. When they forget to breathe they feel like they are drowning. It’s not the water; they’re just suffocating because you’re blocking any chance of mouth breathing. Never mind that noses are much more optimal for breathing but whatever. Not everyone has learned how to snorkel either. And how do you convince patients that unless they just ate a handful of almonds, brushing immediately before their dental appointment won’t make your task any easier?
Then there are the patients themselves. Not just their mouths, but the whole person. Patients whose embarrassment about their teeth are the reason they haven’t been to a dentist in a while. People who not only open their mouths but open up to you, tell you their secrets, their fears, their wishes and hopes. People who trust you to take care of them, to love them, to nurture them towards health. They see something special in your eyes, and they open wide.
So go ahead and make it known out there in the big world that you’re hygienist. Or a dentist. You scale teeth. You drill teeth. No biggie. That’s what you do.
What really matters, though, are the reasons why.
Trish Walraven RDH, BSDH is a mom and practicing dental hygienist in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas. She is a bit of an an introvert when she’s writing dental articles, but you get her together with her best friend from high school and Irish festival beer and she begins to make faces like this. She also makes faces like this under her mask if her patients aren’t paying attention to her flossing instructions.