Giving and receiving

On that day, I learned the best gifts are not bought with money. Finally, I had touched someone's life and - surprise of all surprises - he had touched mine.

After graduating from the University of Detroit's dental hygiene program, I divided my practice between a community dental clinic and a rehabilitation institute, both in rural western Michigan. School had pumped me full of high ideals, but working in the real world soon deflated my noble notions. I started out with plans to clean up the mouths of everyone in my little corner of the world, but soon discovered that the process relies heavily on cooperation from patients. Sadly, most of the patients I saw didn't share my enthusiasm.

Three hygienists worked with three dentists at the clinic providing much needed care to the indigent residents in three neighboring counties. Some of the families living along the back roads were as poor as dirt - and wore it on their clothes and faces. One day after lunch, we awaited the arrival of a Medicaid family of six boys with each hygienist scheduled to treat two brothers. Imagine six blonde-headed boys with greasy, stringy hair; sweet looking, dirt-streaked faces; and filthy, ripped clothing. One boy had no shoes, and his feet were as black as coal dust. Their oral hygiene rivaled their personal hygiene.

The oldest of the six, Norman, was a sullen young man of about 13. In striking up a conversation, the boy told me his family shared one toothbrush between all eight and that it had been a gift to one of the brothers by a hygienist at school during Children's Dental Health Month. My heart went out to this poor family. Their struggle in life seemed more difficult than I could ever imagine. I wondered what it must be like to be so hungry you eat the stale bread sent over by neighbors for your small flock of ducks.

I gave Norman and one of his brothers my best care, spending a great deal of time on oral hygiene instructions. Each received a new toothbrush with my ultimatum not to let anyone else use it - the brushes were for their personal, exclusive, individual use. I told the boys those brushes were my gifts to them and that their gifts back to me would be to use the brushes regularly and to take good care of their teeth. At the end of this particular day, I remember feeling the frustration of knowing that, once again, my efforts at helping had fallen on deaf ears.

About two weeks later, I was driving home as usual after a day of work at the rehabilitation institute. Due to a construction project, I had to take a short detour down one back road and return to the main highway on another. On the last leg of the detour, I noticed an old yellow school bus resting on cinder blocks in a clearing about 100 feet off the road. Someone had hung red gingham curtains in the windows giving the bus a lived-in appearance. A closer look revealed that a family had made it their home. Just the thought of someone living in a school bus without running water, heat, or electricity - especially in Michigan during the harsh winters - was enough to make my toes freeze right off. Two disheveled, blonde-headed boys were roughhousing in front of the bus and I recognized one as Norman, my patient from the clinic.

I pulled onto the shoulder and backed up in front of the makeshift house. It took a few minutes before I got his attention; then I yelled, "Hey, Norman! Have you been brushing your teeth? I'm counting on you to take care of your teeth, and to help your little brothers take care of theirs too." Norman was obviously stunned by my sudden appearance and it took several seconds for him to answer. We exchanged a few pleasantries; and then I resumed my journey home, laughing about his reaction to my impromptu house call.

Over time, I forgot about Norman and his brothers, and I continued to grow more disillusioned with my work. I had always thought that as a hygienist I would touch lives and improve my patients' overall well-being, but time proved how naive that expectation was. My patients just seemed bored and uninterested, showing up every six months with their mouths in just as bad shape - if not worse - than on the previous visit. I began to seriously consider a different line of work, one that could provide me with a greater sense of personal fulfillment.

About two months into my new job search, Norman and his brothers returned to the clinic for their recall appointments. I made sure that Norman was on my schedule so I could chart his oral hygiene progress. After a quick examination, I could tell he had done a bang-up job of brushing his teeth.

I said, "Why, Norman, just look at this! Your teeth and gums are in great shape! I'm so proud of you. You were actually listening to me."

In response, this normally silent young man said, "I was hoping you'd notice. I did it for you. It's my gift, remember?"

Well Norman, my boy, you gave me one incredible gift. On that day, I learned the best gifts are not bought with money. Finally, I had touched someone's life and - surprise of all surprises - he had touched mine. Innocent words, spoken in truth, had a profound effect on me because here I am, 24 years later, hanging on to the memory of that gift, and providing oral hygiene instructions to all who will listen.

"Giving and Receiving" was written by Becky Sroda, RDH, MS. "Extras" are great Chicken Soup for the Dental Soul stories edited by co-author and keynote speaker, Don Dible, for which there simply wasn't enough room in the book. Not sold in stores, Chicken Soup for the Dental Soul is available by phone toll-free at (800) 247-6553 or by mail from DMD House, 1250 Oakmead Parkway, Suite 210, Sunnyvale, CA 94085 for $12.95 plus $4 shipping. Quantity discounts available.You may contact Don Dible at dondible@dmdhouse.net.

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