As clinical dental hygienists, we count on our bodies to bend, move, and contort to meet every whim of our patients. Patients tell us, "I can’t be laid back" and "My mouth doesn’t open wider." Or, when asked to turn their heads, they move 1 mm. We take all this movement for granted. We may feel the pain later, but then we get up the next day and do it all again. But what if the unexpected happens and we no longer can? Does this mean our careers are over? For me, I thought it was.
When everything changed
I have always loved clinical hygiene. The relationships with patients and coworkers...being a tiny part of improving someone's oral health...these things made me so happy. Driving home from work one day, I was going to stop at Target. I got off on a different exit than normal. I thought to myself, “I wonder if anything different will happen because I chose a different exit?” I was thinking I might meet a cute guy in the aisle at Target. I was running through my shopping list while stopped at a red light when a woman texting on her phone, apparently not realizing we were all stopped, rear-ended me going 35 mph, slamming me into the car ahead of me.
I was instantly in shock. My first thought was about the puppy I was fostering: "I am not going to make it home before this puppy needs to go out!" I pulled over and I got out of my car to check that we were all okay.
After leaving the scene, the pain started to set in. My dad came and took me to the ER. After the fear that I had broken my neck was cleared, a new medical journey ensued. I started seeing physical therapists, doctors, orthopedic surgeons, and chiropractors. I was diagnosed with a severe neck injury within the muscles and nerves, and thoracic outlet syndrome in my left arm.
Once I was released to work abbreviated hours, I returned to work. One day I was working on a patient and my left arm started to go numb. It dropped like dead weight at my side. I was terrified. My workplace was having a difficult time accommodating my shortened schedule, and I was getting worse trying to accommodate the hours they wanted. So, I made the decision that I would have to leave. I couldn’t inconvenience the patients or my coworkers anymore.
But what was I going to do? My associate degree in dental hygiene wouldn't open many doors, would it?
After taking time to grieve the loss of the career I loved, I made the decision that I would try to share my passion in a different way. I decided that if I was going to take control of my work schedule by temping, with only being able to work short shifts and a maximum of 15 hours per week, it was the right time to go back to school and get my bachelor’s degree.
Wisconsin did not have a bachelor’s program in dental hygiene anymore, but thankfully many online programs existed for degree completion. With the goal of education in mind, I decided on Minnesota State University, Mankato. I applied and got accepted. I had my transfer credits approved and started getting everything aligned. I gave notice at my job and threw myself a little retirement-from-full-time-hygiene / start-of-a-new-adventure party.
The last year and a half have been challenging. Going back to school after 16 years definitely has presented a steep learning curve. When I started back, I was so afraid I would fail. I started slowly and only took 11 credits. Many classes in the completion programs are accelerated, so I only had two classes at a time. I ended up with 3 A’s and an A+ in my first semester. After gaining some confidence back, I realized study skills are a lot like riding a bike—they do come back!
I type this now while still in my last semester, with one summer class left to finish. Graduation is in sight! I have been attending many conferences to get to know more people in our profession, as well as taking classes for educators to learn all I can. I have gotten involved in the American Dental Hygienists' Association and have learned so much about what goes on behind the scenes. The hygienists who volunteer their time to make our profession better are incredible. There are so many inspiring RDHs out there whom I have met and have helped me along this journey—I cannot thank them enough. Also, the support of the offices I have temped in and the agency I temp for has been fantastic. I was expecting some resistance given my new limitations, but most practices have made it a truly positive experience.
During the course of the program, I also found out about the other careers that exist for hygienists with a bachelor’s degree. Besides teaching in an institution, there is corporate education and being a hygiene trainer or manager in a DSO. There is public speaking, whether motivational or giving CE. There are opportunities within public health or research. You can be an author, a life coach, or an entrepreneur. If you can dream it, you can make it happen. Find your passion and chase it.
During all of this, I have been doing continuous therapy. While cutting my hours so drastically did finally heal the thoracic outlet syndrome, I have been left with a permanent neck injury. I will never have full, pain-free function of my neck again.
Besides my career, there are other parts of daily life I have had to give up. It is definitely hard to accept some days. Sometimes I kick myself for choosing to get off at that exit that day. But I can’t dwell there. I need to look forward.
I share my story in hopes that if someone else is struggling with life after injury, they can see a way out. You can still do great things in this profession. I believe in you! Dream big, as Rachel Hollis would say. And if you are feeling burnt out, don’t wait for the 35-mph shove. Set a goal and go after it. In the words of Rachel Patten’s “Fight Song,”
This is my fight song / Take back my life song / Prove I'm alright song / My power's turned on / Starting right now I'll be strong / I'll play my fight song / And I don't really care if nobody else believes / 'Cause I've still got a lot of fight left in me
If I can help you in any way, please do not hesitate to reach out.
Kim Knutson, BSDH, RDH, practices dental hygiene in her native Wisconsin. She graduated from Northcentral Technical College in 2002, and graduated summa cum laude from Minnesota State University, Mankato, in 2019. She currently serves as vice president of the Wisconsin Dental Hygienist’s Association and is pursuing a career as an educator. She may be reached at [email protected].