Your legacy in dental hygiene

July 10, 2015
Your gifts and contributions should be what the profession remembers about you

Your gifts and contributions should be what the profession remembers about you


This year, our profession lost two great dental hygienists: Michele Darby, RDH, MS, and Irene Woodall, RDH, PhD. Both colleagues were dental hygiene educators, researchers, advocates, authors, speakers, champions, and mentors. They touched so many lives and inspired us with their enthusiasm for all that was possible. Their legacies live among us, and their contributions to our profession prompted me to think about what we can and will accomplish in our careers.

Many of us begin our career in dental hygiene just excited to obtain a paying position in clinical practice. We are not thinking about what we will leave behind us; rather, we want to look ahead to being able to earn a living, pay down that college debt, maybe start a family, get a car, and a few finer things in life. Building a career in a health-care profession may not be on the radar screen.

As we become more established in practice, education, sales, or whatever our field may be in dental hygiene, we may not be thinking about that legacy because we may be trying to accomplish other goals. Before we know it 10, 20, even 30 years have passed before our eyes. While we may have enjoyed a good life, we still may not have planned or thought through what we wanted to leave behind or give by having this career in dental hygiene.

It is important to have this conversation about legacy so we can appreciate that we have a career, not a job, in dental hygiene. We have an opportunity to make a difference, to change something, to empower others, and to create, build, inspire, and grow. Ask yourself, if you could start tomorrow, what would your legacy be?

For those of us who are educators, it is easy for us to pinpoint what we have created. We have our students and their careers to follow. We have our publications and presentations, our courses, and our offices filled with photos and papers piled high that attest to an impact on the lives of others. It is easy for us to have a visual of what we have accomplished.

Those of us in clinical practice may not have the same chance to see an impact so easily. The operatory does not exactly show the lives you have touched. It is a sterile-looking room that is not filled with patient files that show improved health care. That room does not readily attest to the number of individuals you made feel important by remembering them and their families, how they were recovering from their surgery or cancer care, and how their dentition has been maintained over the course of your 30-year career.

That operatory does not tell the story of how you detected early oral cancer and saved a life, nor does it tell how your office gave a scholarship that started a high school student on her way to medical school. Maybe the office looks small but does not show the big heart it has in caring for the community by sponsoring oral cancer or other health screenings, providing free care for the disabled or needy, and participating in those Sealant Saturdays. As you read this, think about all that you do, because I am willing to bet that the sterile room where you work is actually teeming with amazing stories of clinical accomplishments.

Irene and Michele left us with wonderful gifts. They would be the first to say that you do the very same thing. We must recognize and value who we are and what we do. Cherish your career and your legacy; this profession grows because of you! RDH

JOANN R. GURENLIAN, RDH, PhD, is president of Gurenlian & Associates, and provides consulting services and continuing education programs to health-care providers. She is a professor and dental hygiene graduate program director at Idaho State University, and president of the International Federation of Dental Hygienists.