Photo courtesy of Nancy Schalk, RDH
RDHs who worked in Switzerland more than 30 years ago gathered for a recent reunion in Switzerland. They're holding photos of their friends who weren't able to make the trip.

Hygienists grateful for time spent practicing in Switzerland

Dec. 14, 2022
The minute she read the article in RDH magazine, Nancy Schalk knew she wanted to practice dental hygiene in Switzerland. More than 30 years later, she reconnected with her colleagues.

On September 15, 25 dental hygienists boarded flights from all over the world to attend what would be one of our most memorable weekends in Zurich, Switzerland. I thank RDH magazine for giving me the opportunity to share our story, which starts 30 years ago in New Hampshire. I graduated from dental hygiene school in 1988 and I was so proud of my accomplishments. I was fully prepared for my first interview and very excited to start my career.

The dentist came out to the reception area and introduced himself. He apologized and informed me that he was running late, so he handed me an RDH magazine to flip through while I waited. And there it was—an article about living and working in Switzerland. That was all I needed. I knew at that moment I was going to Switzerland!

I thanked the dentist for the opportunity, but I declined the position. I now had other plans. I must admit, I didn’t even know where Switzerland was on the map. I filled out some paperwork, signed an 18-month contract in a different language, and was told that someone would pick me up at the airport when I arrived. Sounds safe, right? What could possibly go wrong?

The requirements to work in Switzerland at the time were that I had to have at least one year of experience as a hygienist, be under the age of 30, have no children, and be willing to stay for at least 18 months. Applicants were also asked to include a photo of themselves with the application. We were provided with a fully furnished flat and up to eight weeks of paid holiday. It was a no-brainer for me!

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Adventures in Switzerland

Dental hygienists were a new commodity in Switzerland in the ’80s. Swiss patients became very accustomed to being treated by American dental hygienists. Dental hygienists did not yet exist in Switzerland, but today there are three dental hygiene programs in the country.

Most of us were given one hour to work on each patient. Patients paid according to time spent in the chair. Many were difficult cleanings. The lifestyles of the Swiss included red wine and bold coffee, and many patients had pronounced tobacco staining. It wasn’t uncommon for ashtrays to be found in waiting rooms, and I about fell off my chair whenever the dentist and patient proceeded to light up after an oral exam. One of the offices I worked in even had a fully stocked bar for patients who wanted to arrive early and have a drink. We had our work cut out for us.

Lunch breaks were also interesting. In most offices, dental assistant responsibilities including preparing our meals. I admit we loved that, even when wine was included.

We did our best to communicate with patients. If we had difficulty, many patients were eager to practice their English with us, or we would call in an English-speaking staff member to translate. But this could not continue for too long as we were expected to learn the language. Most of our first German sentences were “Haben sie zahnschmerzen?” (Do you have a toothache?), and “Bitte spulen” (Please rinse). Those two sentences carried us through our first few months. Eventually, most of us could speak conversational German with an emphasis on dental lingo. Some of us were provided cheat sheets to help. I admit it could be comical at times.

One of the benefits of living and working in Switzerland, besides the endless supply of chocolate, was that we could travel almost every weekend. The workweek ended on Thursday for most of us. We often told our friends, “Let’s meet at the train station.” We would meet at the treffpunkt (meeting point), choose a destination, and off we’d go. There was no scouring the internet for ideas or deals. We just picked a destination and went. We boarded trains to surrounding villages, mountains, and even other countries. It was magical! When a train, tram, or bus in Switzerland was set to depart at 4 p.m., it departed at 4 p.m. If we learned anything while living in Switzerland, it was to never be late.

There were many American hygienists working in Zurich. We all worked for different dentists, and we all had our own apartments. We found friends and maintained a solid sisterhood throughout the years. We managed to communicate, plan events, and travel without the use of cell phones or internet. We learned to adapt to Swiss customs as best we could. We embraced the three-kiss greeting, and we knew to never show up without a small gift for the hostess.

We quickly learned other quirks of the Swiss lifestyle. We paid our bills at the “post” and did our laundry only on our assigned laundry days. We learned that we had to air out our duvets, but never on a Sunday, which were made for walks and Zopf. We cherished the cost of a garbage bag and recycled accordingly. We ate culinary delights whose names we could barely pronounce—bircher muesli, zuri-geschnetzeltes, and alplermagronen to name a few. We ate certain foods according to seasons. The smell of roasted marroni told us fall was in the air and the smell of gruyere and appenzeller cheeses told us winter had arrived. But there was never a shortage of Swiss chocolate and we enjoyed that year-round!

We did not celebrate the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving Day, but we did celebrate Sechselauten and Knabenschiessen. We respected the culture and traditions and did our best to fit in. We were Swiss residents and we felt compelled to behave like them.

We all fell in love with Switzerland and found it difficult to leave. When it came time to leave we asked: Do we renew our contract? Do we go back to the States and be with our families? A few of us married Swiss and decided not to leave. No matter what we chose, we honored each other’s decisions. We knew we’d see each other again. It was a bond that would never be broken.

Life after Switzerland

In the late ’90s, most of us returned to the States. We did our best to keep in touch through letters, postcards, and phone calls. When FaceTime and Zoom came along it was like hitting the jackpot! For the past 30 years we often spoke about getting together again. It wasn’t easy to make that dream a reality but thanks to social media we were able to reach out to many dental hygienists hoping to reunite in the place we once called home.

The date was set, flights were booked, accommodations were made, and off we went. After all, this was how we rolled back in the day and when faced with an adventure, we were sure to make it happen! Some of us had not seen each other since we’d left Switzerland. We met in a beautiful area called the Linderhof that overlooks Zurich. We immediately cried when we saw each other. The reunion was everything I dreamed it would be and more. We spent three incredible days laughing, eating, hiking, and sharing funny stories about being American hygienists in Switzerland. If those Alps could talk!

Sadly, most of the Swiss dentists we worked for have passed away, but we’re forever grateful to them and the opportunity they gave us.

Thank you, RDH, for letting me share this story and for making this dream a reality for so many of us. And thank you to the dentist who was running late for my first interview. You changed my life.