In 2018 I vowed to never, ever sit in a dental operator chair again. I searched high and low for jobs that were dental related, but allowed me to avoid clinical hygiene. I went on countless interviews. Potential employers would ask something like: “So, why do you want to leave dental hygiene?” My answer was always: “I love dental hygiene, but it does not love me back.” Then, we would exchange a forced laugh. I would go on to explain that my back, neck, and wrist issues were getting to be intolerable and I wanted to shift my professional focus. While that was not a lie, it was not the whole truth either—more than anything else, it was a convenient explanation for why I wanted to leave hygiene.
I distinctly remember the day I found myself in my closet, violently grabbing all of my perfectly pressed scrubs and ripping them off the hangers. With a trash bag in hand, I wrinkled them up into a ball, stuffed them in, and tied a big, huge double knot. I threw them to the back of my closet and told them that if they knew what was good for them, they would just stay there.
With those scrubs, I buried my passion for dental hygiene. I thought my résumé and LinkedIn profile would be more appealing to other professionals if I pushed myself to “do more.” So, I stepped out of the op and explored some different avenues. During that period of time, I worked in a job that I liked but didn’t love. Let me be the first to say, it showed. I was mediocre, at best, despite my effort to always strive for perfection. Over time, I slowly realized that burying my passion for dental hygiene was not the answer. In fact, the opposite was about to happen.
During the COVID-19 outbreak, I stumbled upon my long-awaited answer. I found myself going stir-crazy during quarantine and felt a burning urge to organize. All of you type A, organized, neat freaks know exactly what I’m talking about. The closet was my first victim. On a dusty shelf of my closet, behind some sweaters, I found that trash bag. Once I realized what was in that bag, I sat in my closet and allowed myself a good cry. I undid the knot and pulled out my scrubs … one wrinkled top and one wrinkled bottom at a time.
As I hung them back up, I looked at them proudly and with a completely different perspective. I remembered wearing those teal scrubs when I hugged an elderly female patient after losing her husband to his long battle with lung cancer. I remembered wearing the purple ones during my niece’s very first dental appointment when I accidentally polished her teeth with bubblegum paste instead of the strawberry one she had asked for. I remembered wearing the pink ones while finding a unilateral lesion on a patient’s tongue and feeling so sick to my stomach that I skipped lunch that day.
My answer was that I love dental hygiene and the need for it to love me back slowly faded. I questioned what that return love would even look like. During this global pandemic, many hygienists are rushing out of the operatory. With the risk of contracting the coronavirus, employers who are not following proper protocol, and the extra PPE, hygienists are looking for employment elsewhere. While others have decided to jump ship, I have felt compelled to do the exact opposite. I am running back into the dental hygiene fire. I became a dental hygienist because I love and care for my patients like they are my family. Our patients need us more than ever, and it would be a disservice to not embrace them during this trying time.
During dental hygiene school, a beloved clinical professor—who would later become one of my dearest friends—challenged me to treat every patient like they were a member of my immediate family. She would often say, “Would you recommend the same treatment if that patient was your mom?” and those are still words I hear in the back of my head while speaking with my patients today.
You might have an epiphany like I did, or you might not. You may not find yourself at the back of your closet crying into your scrubs like I did. But I strongly urge you to put your scrubs on and take a look at yourself in the mirror. Ask yourself why you want to leave clinical hygiene. Ask yourself if you can envision never wearing scrubs again. Ask yourself if you are comfortable with never picking up a scaler again. Ask yourself if you are comfortable with never popping off calculus on the lingual surfaces of the mandibular anterior teeth. Ask yourself if you are prepared to never ease a patient’s dental anxiety again. Ask yourself why you chose dental hygiene in the first place. If any of these questions strike a chord with you, then I encourage you to join me in rediscovering your passion for dental hygiene.
Kimberly Carpenter, RDH, BSDH, is a practicing clinical dental hygienist in the Greater Boston area. She graduated summa cum laude from Mount Ida College in 2011, and shortly thereafter, she proudly returned to her alma mater to serve as a clinical dental hygiene instructor. She has held clinical hygiene positions in dental specialties ranging from pediatrics to periodontics. Kim is unapologetically committed to providing her patients the most up-to-date, evidenced-based care possible and prides herself in treating her patients like they are her family. When she isn’t wearing scrubs, Kim enjoys rooting for the Boston sports teams. Contact her at [email protected].