How high does a tree grow?

Catrina Houston, RDH, encourages dental hygienists to take four steps to launch a career that allows them to keep growing.

Mar 1st, 2018
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Take the chance to have the dental hygiene career you want

By Catrina Houston, RDH

We all remember our pinning ceremony when we raised our right hand and repeated the dental hygiene oath. You strutted into your first job ready to make a difference. By God, you were going to be the best damn hygienist this office had ever seen. That night, you clocked out with a reality check. Every day since then has chipped away a small piece of that perio-preventing, oral-cancer-screening, ready-to-make-a-difference soul. But, why?

We all have our own reasons for entering this profession. Some heard the money was great. Some heard dental hygiene school would be easy (another reality check). Some liked the “flexible hours.” Some of us, though, went into dentistry because we loved it to the core. We have a passion for making a difference, for creating smiles, and for saving lives. This is the hygienist for whom I am writing this article.

What happened to that passion? What happened to that commitment to improve the oral health of the public? What happened to advancing the art and science of dental hygiene? There are hundreds of excuses. We’re overworked, undervalued, and unappreciated by patients, co-workers, and bosses. A career is like a marriage. If there are problems in a relationship, there are two options—divorce or reconciliation. If your time as a hygienist has come to an end, that’s OK. Embrace it and own it.

There comes a time in our lives when we need to close one chapter and start anew. If you still have any desire left, find a way to ignite that flame, set it ablaze, and get your career moving in the right direction.

Ask yourself these two questions:

  • Am I happy with what I’m doing?


  • What do I spend the most time thinking about (besides cake)?


When you graduated from dental hygiene school you completed a goal, and you worked unbelievably hard to achieve it. From washing your hands on day one to driving to questionable locations to pick up a boards patient, you spent every day dedicated to achieving your dream. Once you graduated and found a job, you stopped growing.

Freedom to uproot

It’s totally understandable, after all; you worked so hard to complete this goal. Our spirits don’t work that way, though. Think about this question: How high does a tree grow? The answer is: As high as it can. The goal of a tree is to grow as tall as it possibly can so it can fulfill its purpose, which is to supply oxygen. A tree doesn’t have the freedom to choose what kind of tree it wants to be, where it wants to plant its roots, or what leaves it will produce. Thankfully, you’re not a tree. Why are you living as if you are? Similarly to a tree, our growth is limitless. The difference between us and a tree is that we don’t have to stay in the same place, doing the same thing for our entire life. We are able to uproot ourselves and use our knowledge to grow in any direction we choose.

Social media has made it easier for people to network with professionals they might not have had the opportunity to connect with ten years ago. Facebook, in particular, has brought likeminded hygienists together who all have one goal in mind: change. Practicing clinical hygienists often communicate in these social media groups that they are looking for a way out. The groups provide a platform for dental professionals to get outside their comfort zone and make their dreams a reality.

Kyle Isaacs, RDHEP, BHS

Some social media followers prefer to sit back and watch others breathe life into their dreams. Others push the boundaries every day, because they know the best things in life are on the other side of terror. We all start as watchers, but one day it will be your turn to step out and shine.

Dental hygienists are innovative. We are strong-willed, insightful, quick-witted, and extremely intelligent individuals. Being a dental hygienist is much more than scaling teeth and perio charting. Hygienists who were unfulfilled in their clinical practice took their education, knowledge, and passion for dentistry and made their own path.

Out of the comfort zone

Here are some examples of changes in our profession set forth by hygienists who have stepped out of their comfort zone.

Due to the determination of hygienists who were dissatisfied and tired of being undervalued, we can now administer local anesthetic in 45 states. In some states, hygienists have fought and won the right to work independently without a dentist.

Kyle Isaacs, RDHEP, BHS, is an expanded practice dental hygienist in Oregon. In 2017, Kyle received word that her long-awaited dream had been approved. Kyle launched a pilot program in long-term care facilities where she is able to do assessments, oral cancer screenings, prophys, scaling and root planing, apply silver diamine fluoride (SDF), and do soft tissue reline for dentures. Kyle also spends time educating the staff on the importance of daily oral hygiene and techniques so they are more comfortable providing the patients with the best care.

Kyle’s goal is to expand this project across the United States.

A great number of us have elected to further our education by becoming orofacial myofunctional therapists (OMT) and even dental therapists. Sarah Lawrence, RDH of Kansas has taken her education as an OMT into the pediatric office. Sarah develops treatment plans for children with incorrect tongue resting posture, swallowing dysfunction, open-mouth resting posture, and mouth breathing. Sarah also assesses patients for suspected lingual restriction (ankyloglossia) and provides preoperative and postoperative myofunctional therapy.

Jamie Freitag-Dooley, RDH, BIS, CLC

Elijah Desmond, RDH, BS

Jamie Freitag-Dooley, RDH, BIS, CLC, is the dental outreach coordinator at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich. Jamie’s love for public health has inspired her to develop multiple programs which increase access to care. Through a large Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) Workforce grant, she is currently running a school-based sealant program she created, along with piloting interprofessional collaboration, utilizing students to expand the workforce in a health professional shortage area (HPSA). She is determined to integrate oral health into the medical system, nationwide.

Jamie’s heart is not only focused on public health, but also in helping others become their best self. She created the Dental Impact Foundation, which gives start-up grants to hygienists starting their own business. She also runs Jamie Dooley Coaching. Jamie has helped countless hygienists find their passion and courage to live an inspired life through her self-study course “30 Day Manifesto,” one on one coaching, and inspirational speaking. She believes that we can only rise as a profession when we first rise as individuals. Find her on Facebook @jamieismycoach.

Other hygienists have decided to say goodbye to the operatory altogether. Elijah Desmond, RDH, BS, was tired of the usual boring continuing education classes, locked away in a closed boardroom. Elijah combined his love of dentistry and enthusiasm for life with his keen sense of business, and created Smiles at Sea, LLC. Elijah thought outside of the box and took his continuing education courses onto cruise ships. The events are filled with the “who’s who” in the dental industry.

How do you find your jewel?

You will find four steps you can take today to be on your way to the career you’ve been dreaming about.

1. Take accountability—You will never have your ideal life unless you become accountable. You are where you are in your life, right now, because of the actions you have taken or not taken. Most people assume that they will grow and things will get better. Growth does not just happen to you. You must take initiative. When you grow, you add value to yourself as a person and as an employee.

2. If you want a better life or a more fulfilling career, you have to increase your value. Your boss isn’t paying you for your time; he’s paying you for your value. If you can bring more value to the workplace, you become more valuable. You can have more than you’ve got because you can be more than you are.

3. Figure out your why—We all have awesome ideas that run through our head every day, but that doesn’t mean we should do all of them. Use your strengths to elevate your career. If you despise paperwork, don’t become a grant writer. If you love leadership, maybe look into coaching. Why do you get out of bed each day? Why do you stay up late after everyone else has gone to bed? If the answer doesn’t add fuel to your flame, it’s probably not right for you.

4. Make a decision—You hear this every day. “I’ve made a decision to stop smoking, as soon as I’m finished with this pack.” “We’ve decided to have a baby when I get a better job.” “We’re going to buy a new house, as soon as we save enough money.”

Those examples are thoughts, not decisions. When you make a decision, you act in that moment. Action is the difference between a thought and a decision. Thoughts are useless unless you put them into action.

Smiles at Sea is not only good for continued education, it’s also a great place to network. When Elijah isn’t setting sail, he is speaking at study clubs that he has implemented all over the United States, which he calls Smiles at CE. Elijah’s upbeat personality is contagious and leaves you wanting more.

These are examples of everyday people. The only difference between them and you is they decided to push the boundaries and create a life that they are excited to participate in each day. Do you notice the common denominator? Each one of the individuals that I mentioned is fulfilling their dreams by improving the lives of others.

The human mind is a master of trickery. You convince your self that you’ll be happy when you get a raise or when you change jobs. You’ll be happy for a while. Eventually, though, the “new” wears off, and you find yourself back in the same position of wanting more. True happiness is not achieved by what you can get but rather what you can give. I’m not saying that we should all stop what we’re doing and go volunteer at a local shelter. What I am saying is that we all have a unique gift inside of us (see sidebar). Sharing that gift with the world is where we will find our true individual happiness.

Action is terrifying and uncomfortable, but it’s the key to change.

Have you ever been standing on the edge about to do something daring? At the last minute, you chicken out and take a step back, but your friends take the leap and go for it. When your friends return to you, they say, “That was incredible! Why didn’t you do it? You missed out!”

Your heart is still racing a million miles per hour. Inside your head, you’re disappointed that you missed your chance. You didn’t experience “life.” You didn’t “jump.” Now is the time to “jump.” Make the decision to change your life and act. Pick up the phone, make the call, find a mentor, ask the question, quit the job, and just take the leap.

Action is terrifying and uncomfortable, but it’s the key to change. If you continue to do the same things day in and day out, your life will continue in the same direction. If you want change, you must get used to being uncomfortable. Live outside of your comfort zone. Create the life you dream of. Our profession needs you. Most importantly, try to enjoy the journey. That’s the fun part!

CATRINA HOUSTON, RDH, is a practicing dental hygienist in the St. Louis area, as well as a clinical representative for Young Dental. In addition to dental hygiene, Catrina also makes it a priority to give back to her community. She is a CASA volunteer for foster children and serves on the advisory board for a high school dental assisting program. Catrina also enjoys writing and is currently working on her first children’s book. Catrina grew up in the foster care system and has made it her life’s goal to create her ideal life and inspire others to live theirs.

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