An unscheduled patient walked into the office and greeted me by name. He was wearing a mask and I had no idea who he was, but clearly he knew who I was. I did what most of us would do under the circumstances. I faked it. I greeted him with a cheery “Hi! How are you doing?” and hoped he wouldn’t notice that I didn’t use his name. It didn’t work. He laughed and said, “You don’t know who I am, do you?” “No,” I sheepishly replied, and he took off his mask.
The unscheduled patient was not simply a patient; he was the previous owner of the practice, and I knew him very well . . . once he removed his mask. It was at that moment that I realized how much I (and I suspect many other hygienists) focus on people’s mouths when we talk to them. I was both embarrassed and surprised that I didn’t recognize someone whom I knew very well, simply because his mouth was covered.
As hygienists, we’re used to wearing masks all day, but prepandemic, we could take them off between patients. Patients could admire our cheerful smiles, and we could surreptitiously check out their teeth simply by talking to them as we greeted and seated them. Postpandemic, in addition to not always recognizing patients by sight, many of us have found that some patients ask us to repeat ourselves or speak louder because they can’t hear us well behind our masks.
For most of us, mask wearing all day long and patients wearing masks is nothing more than a mild inconvenience. But for some, it is life altering.
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One of the newest RCC influencers
Meet Amanda Zubricki, BS, RDH, one of the newest members of the RDH Community Connections (RCC) dental hygiene influencer program.
Amanda was born with bilateral severe to profound deafness. She wears hearing aids in both ears and uses speech as her primary communication. Amanda was exposed to both hearing and deaf cultures and learned American Sign Language (ASL). She attended deaf school, then mainstream school, and then went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology. She became the first person in her family to graduate with a four-year degree. After she graduated from college, Amanda continued her education and earned an associate’s degree in dental hygiene.
Amanda has worked in two different general dental practices for four years. The small team environment and working one-on-one with patients works well for her. She uses her experience and knowledge to communicate with deaf and hard-of-hearing patients, and she has grown professionally in the four years she’s been working clinically.
But then the pandemic struck. Suddenly in-person communication with coworkers and patients became much more difficult. Amanda could no longer read coworkers’ and patients’ lips with their masks on. Hard-of-hearing and deaf patients who rely on visual cues also found communication with dental personnel more difficult. We can no longer pull down our masks to speak directly to patients.
Amanda already had a blog to educate friends and family members about hearing loss, but with the onset of COVID-19 she realized that she needed to be an advocate for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. While researching, Amanda discovered that there is a lack of resources for the deaf/hard-of-hearing community to enter the dental profession. There is also very little data on the number of deaf/hard-of-hearing people currently working in dentistry. Her own estimate is that less than 1% of dental professionals belong to this community.
Amanda’s personal challenges, especially during the pandemic, and her research on the deaf/hard-of-hearing community and dentistry led her to start a nonprofit organization called That Deaf RDH. The goal of That Deaf RDH is to increase accessibility to oral health care regardless of circumstances, and to teach those who are deaf and hard of hearing to self-advocate.
The mission of That Deaf RDH is “to provide higher educational opportunities to today’s deaf or hard-of-hearing students aspiring to pursue a career in dental hygiene. Providing information, development programs, and resources to financially support dental hygiene students makes higher education possible for students who might otherwise be deprived of this opportunity.” To that end, “scholarships are awarded to any deaf or hard-of-hearing person(s) attending an accredited dental school to help cover supplemental costs such as uniforms, scrubs, loupes, instruments, exam fees, etc.”
Amanda recognizes the unique challenges to this community as they enter the dental field, including difficulties communicating due to masks, background dental noises, and a lack of deaf awareness. She knew when she entered the dental field that the challenges, misunderstandings, and discrimination that she experienced throughout her life would follow her into the profession and possibly be amplified. But Amanda also knew that she had a unique opportunity to make a positive impact on the lives of patients who live with disabilities.
Growing up with hearing loss has given Amanda a unique outlook on life. She does not let it define her but neither does she deny the invisible burden. She recognized the challenges that a career in dental hygiene would bring, but she faced them head-on. And now she is helping other members of the deaf/hard-of-hearing community enter into the profession that she loves.
You can help out in several ways. Participation in a virtual race during September’s Deaf Awareness Month, sponsoring, and donations are all greatly appreciated. That Deaf RDH is a 501c3 and all proceeds go toward the nonprofit mission of helping the deaf and hard-of-hearing pursue their dental education. Amanda can be contacted at [email protected].
Congratulations, Amanda Zubricki, and welcome to the RDH Community Connections (RCC) dental hygiene influencer program!
Editor's note: This article appeared in the November 2021 print edition of 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].