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When you have to say goodbye to dental hygiene

Oct. 16, 2019
Cathy Hester Seckman, RDH, shares the stories of five dental hygienists—and friends—whose careers have taken different paths. She talks to each about their journeys through the profession, why they had to stop practicing, and their sweetest moments.

Just because you’re a hygienist, that doesn’t mean your future is set. Things happen. The job market may change, leaving you behind. You could suffer a work-related injury. Possibly life will lead you down a new path. Or you might just get old. If things changed, how would you handle it? In this article you’ll meet five former hygienists: one blissful retiree who works part-time at home, one corporate trainer, two humanities professors, and a writer. Four of us had to leave dental hygiene before we were ready to do so.

"I've never regretted it."

In my own case, I just got old. Six years ago I retired with my boss, but stayed available to the new owner for fill-in work. It made a nice addition to my second career as a writer, and I always looked forward to hygiene days.

Until last February. Halfway through the day, my left index finger swelled like a sausage and wouldn’t bend easily. By the end of the day the pain level was high, and it took everything I had to control the scaler.

“This isn’t good,” I said to my husband that night. “Look at it.” I held up the finger and could almost swear it was throbbing visibly—it was that painful.

It was like God had decided to flip the switch, and now I have arthritis. Six fingers are presently affected and are puffy and sore most days. Sometimes they escalate from “sore” to “painful.” On March 29, two days before the biennial Pennsylvania license renewal date, I inactivated my license. I’m 65, I reasoned. I’d only exacerbate the arthritis by overusing the joints. At least I can still type.

How do I feel about losing my ability to practice hygiene? Sad. Resigned. I originally followed my sister into dental hygiene with little thought or planning, but the profession has been very good to me. I left once in the ‘80s, but came back, and I’ve never regretted it. Now that door is closed again, more firmly than before, and this time it wasn’t my idea.

I’m still not sure how I feel about not being a hygienist anymore. Part of me is gone, and it isn’t coming back. It has helped to tell my friends’ stories of loss and new beginnings.

"There's life beyond dental hygiene."

Colene House of North Carolina was devastated several years ago when she had to say goodbye to the profession she loved. “I was crushed! It took two and a half years to come to grips with it. The pivotal moment was the morning I was sitting on my front porch—my happy place—at 10 in the morning, still in my pajamas, drinking a cup of coffee, having slept in until 9:30. I realized, hey, this ain't so bad. After getting up at the crack of dawn for 41 years...yeah, this ain't so bad!”

Colene developed carpometacarpal arthritis in the base of her right thumb. “It causes weakness and pain that makes it hard to grip a scaler with precision. It may start as soreness in the muscle. I had a tough time just holding a glass after a day of scaling. I couldn't count how many glasses I dropped before I started to get concerned that something was wrong. What if I dropped a scaler on a patient?”

After three years of trying to ignore the problem, she had surgery and returned to work, but had to leave dental hygiene for good two years later when her thumb gave out permanently. “I'm physically comfortable now, but I have to face the fact daily that my hands will be weak for the rest of my life. I can't write longer than five or ten minutes. No knitting, cross stitching, painting—any activities that require precision are off the table. But things that use larger gripping, like playing golf, I can do, even if it's not every day. I have learned to find things that make me happy and treasure them.”

Colene kept her hygiene license for five years. “Then when it came time to renew in year six, I paced around the house, asking, why was I keeping it? I wasn't going to teach—my hands couldn't handle a scaler well enough to demonstrate instrumentation. I cried, paced some more, and finally decided to let it go.”

Though the decision devastated her—“I was convinced the world would quit turning if I was no longer a licensed dental hygienist”—she has come to see her lost career differently. “If my injury could have been resolved, would I have gone back? Seven years ago I would have said yes. Absolutely! I loved what I did for a living. I gained so much from my experiences and loved my dental family. Now? I'll tell you, no. There's life beyond dental hygiene. If I was younger, I'd go back to college and learn to do something that wouldn't be so physically demanding.”

She has realized how grateful she is for her career. “I wouldn't give anything for my experiences and life as a hygienist. I met incredible folks whose friendships I will treasure forever. I worked for wonderful dentists whose guidance helped mold me into the person I am today. I learned the meaning of teamwork and being held accountable for my actions both as a team player and clinician.

“But I do think it's of paramount importance to develop other skills and knowledge in order to turn down another path if need be. A friend once told me about not putting all your eggs in one basket. She was right. Don't treat dental hygiene as the last thing you'll ever do with your life. Don't stop learning. Because if the gift of being a dental hygienist is taken away, you've got to be able to step into another role.”

In Colene’s post-retirement career, she can work in her pj’s. “I help my husband, who works at home, by keeping him organized. I've learned just enough bookkeeping skills to make his office run smoothly. I guess you could say he's my new boss. It's pretty cool to be able to go to work still wearing my pajamas, and I can 'talk back' to him without fear of getting fired. 

“I read as much as I want. I've learned how to play Mahjong. I'm an avid walker. Also, years ago I started an online group for dental hygienists and assistants who were  suffering from repetitive motion injuries (http://groups.google.com/group/hygienistshands), so that keeps me involved in the profession. I can feel like I'm helping someone. Many of these far-flung people have become friends even though none of us have met in person. They don't know it, but they've actually helped me!”

"I loved the one-to-one conversation."

Heidi Emmerling of California wasn’t forced out of hygiene, but several things factored into her decision to leave. “When I left hygiene, I was not sad or hesitant, but a bit scared because it was all I ever really knew. I had been working in the dental field my whole adult life, and before that I hung out in my dad's dental office. I lived and breathed dentistry.”

One of her reasons for leaving was fear of work-related injury. She also feared the small-business aspect of dentistry. “There was virtually no job security, no union with union benefits.” She also wondered if because of a hepatitis C diagnosis, she might have trouble finding work.

And then there was the new passion. “A few years after getting my associate’s degree and license, I yearned for a bachelor’s degree to better reflect the education all AS hygienists complete. I also thought it would give me more options and balance—broaden my horizons. So I enrolled in a degree completion program—not online like now, so it was hard and expensive to find. The program gave credit for experience as well as the 'vocational' credits. The first course was literature with a heavy writing requirement. That is where it clicked that I loved writing and was really good at it.”

Heidi went on to publish extensively in RDH magazine and to write two books with Shirley Gutkowski: Paper Persona and Paper Persona Workbook under the Purple Guide brand. After finishing her bachelor’s in health arts, she enrolled at the University of Nevada, Reno, for a master’s in English writing and a doctorate in English with an emphasis on composition and rhetoric and secondary specialty in gender issues and health-care writing.

From there, she taught writing at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “When my contract was up I was looking for something permanent and tenure track, since tenure was really important to me. I never see dentistry offering that. I was hired by my dental hygiene alma mater as a tenure track professor, but was not fully using my English background in that position.”

She transferred to the English department at a different college and has been there ever since. It was at that point she gave up her license. “I wouldn’t return to clinical hygiene unless I could no longer make a living as an English professor or by writing, and I don’t see that happening, thank goodness. What do I miss about hygiene? As an introvert, I loved the one-to-one conversation with patients. I also loved popping off chunks of calculus, especially sub calculus, then seeing tight healthy gums at the follow up. Seeing relatively immediate results was nice.

“In teaching I profess to a large group, but I also do office hours and require students to come in at least once a semester so we get a one-to-one fix. I am also doing more fully online teaching where I actually get to know students better because of emails and individual video chats. So student conferences in my office can be somewhat parallel with having a patient in the operatory. The building of relationships and trust happens there.

“I also love talking about my clinical days when I teach tech writing. I get to talk about the reader expectations of certain documents. I definitely know the dental hygiene and the dentist reader expectations--concise, clear, consistent. I also get to do show-and-tell of documents used in the real world and of articles I wrote, primarily for RDH, about citation style in the sciences.”

"The path I feel I was put on earth to do"

Susan Clark, another California hygienist, was forced out of clinical hygiene 10 years ago. “I’d been the only hygienist in the office for 12 years, then the doctor’s son graduated from dental school.” When he joined his father’s practice, the son was given all the hygiene hours to fill his schedule. Susan was unemployed for nearly a year, finding temp work wherever she could.

Needing stable employment, she entered the corporate world. Now she works for Waterpik Inc. and Garrison Dental Solutions as a product educator. For Waterpik, she does six lunch and learns monthly in a 50-mile radius of her home. She also exhibits for them at times.

“For Garrison I do a great deal of traveling, most recently to Adelaide, Australia, to exhibit at the 34th Australian Dental Congress. Primarily, though, I travel through the United States for conferences, seminars, and workshops for dentists. I might use a day before or after the meeting to sightsee. Twice a year, I conduct a three-hour PowerPoint presentation/hands-on workshop on behalf of Garrison for expanded functions students. I really enjoy working hands-on and mentoring these students.”

Susan has always had a heart for mentoring and serving. When she was president of the San Diego County Dental Hygienists’ Society, she encouraged students to serve their communities. “I wanted them to recognize that hygiene was an honorable career dedicated to providing for the underserved, and for those who can’t afford dentistry.” She has also served on dental missions for CDA Cares in San Diego, and in Honduras and Ukraine.

For five years, Susan has maintained a free dental clinic at the Colina De Luz Christian Home for Children in La Gloria, Mexico. “My church drives me down every other month with a group of students. I do scaling, polishing, fluoride varnish applications, and sealants. If I see dental work that needs to be done, I refer to a dentist in Tijuana. The students observe and help out. I never know who I might encourage to enter the dental field. One of the orphans, Carmen, now attends college in Mexico, and wants to be a dentist. I’m so proud of her.”

Looking back on her original career path, Susan says, “If I was offered a position as a clinical hygienist now, I’d probably decline. Dentistry is not what it was when I got out of school. There seems to be less focus on personal interaction and education, and more on production. That’s not what I went to hygiene school to do. I’ve always prided myself on being compassionate and seeing the patient as a person first.”

However, she adds, “My role as a clinical hygienist led me onto the path I feel I was put on earth to do —to mentor, educate, and serve my fellow men and women." 

"I'd go back if I could."

Toni Adams of California faced the end of her hygiene career in 1998, after years of ignoring numbness in her hands. After carpal tunnel release surgery on both hands she was able to return to work, but then began to have issues with one thumb. “I was in so much pain. I wore splints at night and took over-the-counter anti-inflammatories, but it was osteoarthritis. The cartilage was gone. The doctor told me, ‘You just wore out your hands.’"

After three more hand surgeries the pain came back again. “I knew it was the end. My injuries were permanent. I have trouble writing, opening lids, ironing, vacuuming, and doing many other daily tasks. I can’t say I’m sorry to hire someone to do some of those tasks for me now. Fortunately I can still type because that is essential to what I do now, though I have to pace myself.” 

Twenty years later, Toni still says she’d go back if she could. “I loved dental hygiene, especially taking care of people, the satisfaction of helping someone achieve a higher level of health, and helping an apprehensive patient become comfortable.”

Because she loved her career, she still maintains American Dental Hygienists' Association, California Dental Hygienists Association, and American Academy of Dental Hygiene memberships. “I have been on the editorial advisory board for the Journal of the California Dental Hygienists’ Association for 10 years, edited the AADH newsletter for four years, and have written articles for several dental publications.” She also keeps her license. “After working so hard to get and keep it, I just could not let it go. I attend a lot of CE classes and mingle with dental hygiene buddies. The fact that I still have my license now allows me to teach.”

After the end of her clinical career, Toni returned to school to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in communication studies. “I began to write and present about communication for oral health professionals, focusing on cultural and literacy issues. They are fascinating topics and so important to practice today. Ultimately, I was invited to teach in a dental hygiene BS completion program at Foothill College, and I was allowed to create the online class. I included all my favorite topics and love teaching the class. The only thing that would make it better would be if I could teach it in person, but I live too far away. I am excited that our first group will graduate this year, and I get to attend the ceremony.

“I miss the patient and colleague contacts of clinical practice, but work now has brought me full circle. Even though I am teaching about communication issues, I can apply my 26 years of clinical experience to it.”

"It sticks with you."

Dental hygiene, we can all say, sticks with you. Whether you’ve practiced 40 years or just a few, and no matter where life takes you, you’ll never forget the satisfaction of restoring a bright smile or bringing a diseased dentition back to health. You’ll always remember families you knew, stories you heard, and coworkers you loved (or hated). For all of you still working in the trenches, look around next time you’re at work and take a moment to appreciate it. Then realize that some day, in the words of Trace Adkins, “You’re gonna miss this.”

Cathy Hester Seckman, RDH, worked in dentistry 32 years, including 12 years as a pediatric hygienist. Officially retired from clinical hygiene, she still fills in occasionally at the same pediatric practice. She is published in dental magazines, works part-time as an indexer, and is the author of three novels, more than a dozen short stories, and an Arcadia Publishing history of her hometown. Her new book, Ohio Day Trips, is published by AdventureKEEN.

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