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The 2021 Heart to Hands Award presented by Philips and RDH magazine

May 1, 2021
The Philips/RDH Heart to Hands Award is presented to three outstanding hygienists who love their profession. Let's meet the 2021 winners.

Look at your hands. They may be smooth-skinned and soft, or they may have age spots and veins that are starting to show a little too much. They may be beautifully manicured, or they may be dry and red and irritated by too much washing, too much sanitizing, too many hours in gloves. But if they are the hands of a dental hygienist, they are beautiful and amazing. Just think what they can do: They are sensitive enough to detect the tiniest bit of subgingival calculus with a light touch of an explorer, but tough enough to remove tenacious chunks of calculus that have been there for years. They can gently palpate for abnormalities, but are strong enough to push aside roving tongues and tightened lips. They can clean teeth and bring health to oral tissues and smiles to patients’ faces.

Our hands, no matter what they look like, are skillful and essential for clinical hygiene. But there is something equally essential, if not more so . . . the heart. Hygienists with heart listen to their patients, empathize, encourage, find answers, rejoice in patients’ successes and happiness, and sometimes even cry along with them when they share their sadness or grief.

The best hygienists have hand skills and heart skills. And among the best of the best are the recipients of the Philips Heart to Hands Award. The Philips Heart to Hands Award highlights the clinical dental hygienist who is actively treating patients on a weekly basis . . . those clinicians who are making the greatest impact to increase access to care and fulfilling the needs of today’s patients. The award celebrates a profession that transforms the lives of patients and dental hygiene clinicians and educators alike.

Now in its fifth year, RDH magazine and Philips are proud to present the three incredible winners of this year’s award. It is an honor to share the stories of Cynthia Burr, Amber Lombardi, and Ryan Rutar with you.

Cynthia Burr: “Everyday hygienist”

Cynthia Burr, BS, RDH, CPHDH, QOM, might be seen as a champion of the “everyday hygienist.” She began her career as a certified dental assistant before becoming a dental hygienist. In her words, “As dental hygienists, we rock, and we make a difference every day.” She points out that, although we make a difference in other people’s lives, we may not always be aware of what we have done for them. Our patients don’t necessarily tell us about the positive changes they’ve made because of our encouragement. They may not be aware that they avoided systemic illness because they listened to our advice to take care of their oral health.

But we know that we, as “everyday hygienists,” have the ability to improve not only oral health, but also overall health. We have the opportunity to brighten patients’ days with our cheerful attitudes. And we can help patients improve self-esteem by improving their smiles. “Everyday hygienists” can do so much to help our patients.

Cindy tells the story of her patient who is a cardiac surgeon. This doctor claimed that oral health had nothing to do with heart health. Startled to hear that a cardiac surgeon was unaware of the link between oral health and heart health, Cindy respectfully set about educating him, sending him articles that demonstrated the link. Not only did this lead to the surgeon’s enlightenment and subsequent education of his own patients on the importance of oral health, but it also led to a friendship between Cindy and her patient. How many lives did Cindy save because of her interaction with this patient? She will never know, but she knows that she made a difference, just as we all do in our day-to-day interactions with patients.

But Cindy is far more than an “everyday hygienist.” Not too many hygienists practice full-time hygiene along with being a member of a disaster mortuary operation response team, helping to identify human remains. And not every hygienist is a licensed nursing assistant, a certified personal trainer, a Reiki master, an orofacial myologist, a certified public health hygienist, and a retired professional body builder. Whew!

Congratulations, Cynthia Burr, 2021 recipient of the Philips Heart to Hands Award!

Amber Lombardi: Taking hygiene on the road

Amber Lombardi, IPDH, is an independent practice dental hygienist in Maine, with a passion for public health. As the daughter of a dentist and a dental assistant, dentistry is “in her blood,” but it was not her first choice of profession. In college, Amber majored in health sciences. She earned a certificate in early childhood education with a focus on special needs and began a teaching career after graduation.

 As a child, Amber accompanied her parents on several dental mission trips to Haiti. Watching her parents practice “street dentistry,” taking care of poor and low-income communities, sparked Amber’s love for public health. But it wasn’t until her daughter was born prematurely that Amber left education and entered the field of dentistry, managing her father’s dental practice.

Amber enrolled in dental hygiene school and also began volunteering at grassroots organizations, immersing herself in her community and looking for areas of need where she could serve. Her goal was to own her own practice where she could combine her experience in education with public health dentistry. After graduation, she applied for grants and revamped a school sealant/screening program.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Amber was no longer able to provide care to students in schools, and she worried about what would happen to the children. But she saw this time as an opportunity to fulfill another dream—building a mobile dental clinic called Mainely Teeth. Within seven months, Amber had her mobile clinic set up and on the road, once again able to see her patients. By partnering with Head Start, local hospitals, and other federally qualified health centers and nonprofit grassroots organizations, Amber is able to give people a safe dental home during the pandemic.

A large part of Amber’s focus is on creating lasting relationships, not only addressing her patients’ dental needs but also helping to make sure every patient has their basic needs met. She is on the ground providing care in some of the most at-risk communities. The need for services in communities of color and immigrant communities is disproportionately high. Amber hopes to help create opportunities and jobs—both within and without the dental field—for the people she serves, so they can continue to give back to their communities. She states, “I think representation matters, and these communities need providers who speak their language, look like them, and can educate their communities about oral health.”

Amber works with her patients to create a plan to achieve overall oral health. She believes that oral health is a right, not a privilege, and her greatest hope is that her mobile clinic will make it more accessible for those in need.

Congratulations, Amber Lombardi, 2021 recipient of the Philips Heart to Hands Award!

Ryan Rutar: Making connections

Ryan Rutar, MA, BS, BA, RDH, earned a bachelor of science degree in biology before becoming a dental hygienist. He wasn’t sure what career path he wanted to take, but he knew that making connections with people was a priority. After researching the dental hygiene profession, there was an “instant click,” and Ryan has been making those connections with patients for the past 10 years.

In spite of that instant click with the profession, Ryan had some hurdles to overcome in his career. As a gay man, finding a job was not easy, and he says that he was the last person in his class to be hired. But he didn’t give up, and eventually he was hired by an office that appreciates what he brings in terms of skill, management abilities, patient connections, and diversity. Ryan practices clinical hygiene and has put his master’s degree in management to good use as the practice’s dental hygiene manager. He has been able to update the medical history forms to help people who identify as LGBTQ feel accepted. He also registered his office with an online directory that promotes LGBTQ-owned and LGBTQ-friendly businesses. Patient connection can be difficult when one hides a side of oneself. Personal development has helped Ryan to be his true self, even if he has to “come out” every day to someone who doesn’t know him.

Lack of oral health is prevalent in the LGBTQ population due to fear, loneliness, or feelings of vulnerability. Ryan acts as an ambassador to this community by attending pride events and handing out toothbrushes and oral health-care advice. He also lectures on cultural competency and anxiety through his consulting company, Pearly White Prevention. Most recently, Ryan became part of the newly formed Diversity and Inclusion Steering Committee for the American Dental Hygienists’ Association.

According to Ryan, anxiety and depression are common problems in the LGBTQ community due to personal and external stressors brought on by an intolerable environment. During the COVID-19 shutdown, Ryan created a blog, sharing a suicide note he had written more than 20 years ago. He used the blog to foster human connection at a time when so many felt disconnected. Ryan believes that there is strength in vulnerability, not weakness, and by sharing his vulnerabilities, he has helped many overcome their own fears. He truly has made those connections he desired.

Congratulations, Ryan Rutar, 2021 recipient of the Philips Heart to Hands Award!

Award presentation

Philips and RDH magazine will host an evening reception to honor the three winners and celebrate their contributions to dental hygiene at the RDH Under One Roof conference on July 24, 2021, in Indianapolis, Indiana. Congratulations again to three hygienists with skillful hands and compassionate hearts! 

KIRSTEN BRANCHEAU, BA, RDH, has been practicing clinical dental hygiene since 1978. She earned an associate’s degree in applied science in dental hygiene from Union County College in 1977 and a bachelor of arts degree in English literature from Montclair State University in 1988. She is a member of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association. Brancheau is also a freelance proofreader, editor, and writer. She can be reached at [email protected].

About the Author

Kirsten Brancheau, BA, RDH

Kirsten Brancheau, BA, RDH, has been practicing clinical dental hygiene since 1978. She earned an associate’s degree in applied science in dental hygiene from Union County College in 1977 and a bachelor of arts degree in English literature from Montclair State University in 1988. She is a member of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association. Brancheau is also a freelance proofreader, editor, and writer. She can be reached at [email protected].