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Letters from hygienists

July 1, 1999
The distinctive arrogance of Texans can be illustrated by two examples - one is amusing; the other is somewhat disgusting. First, Darrell Becht is a good ol` boy who sells operatory equipment through his Texas-based company, Lone Star Dental. He is hard to miss at dental trade shows, since he`s likely the only one wearing a shirt patterned after the Texas flag. His advertisements in dental publications feature a product in the foreground with the state flag draped behind it in the background. Ca

Part 4 - Guess who`s in my backyard?

Mark Hartley, Editor

The distinctive arrogance of Texans can be illustrated by two examples - one is amusing; the other is somewhat disgusting. First, Darrell Becht is a good ol` boy who sells operatory equipment through his Texas-based company, Lone Star Dental. He is hard to miss at dental trade shows, since he`s likely the only one wearing a shirt patterned after the Texas flag. His advertisements in dental publications feature a product in the foreground with the state flag draped behind it in the background. Can you name any other dental company that uses a state flag in advertisements? Didn`t think so. The disgusting example, fortunately, has nothing to do with dentistry. But pickup trucks on the roads of Texas used to sport a bumper sticker. The grammatically incorrect slogan on the bumper sticker read, "If you ain`t Texan, you ain`t s--t!" What a wonderfully poignant message to deliver to the rest of the world. The literal meaning of the bumper sticker, of course, is bewildering. If everyone who doesn`t live in Texas is not you know what, then Texans are. Isn`t that correct?

Do not be just mildly offended by this obsession with Texas "heritage." Be stunned with the realization that the obsession is believed in passionately. I spent the first 40 years of my life between the south bank of the Red River and the north bank of the Rio Grande. During moments of self-reflection, do I consider myself to be among the blessed? You bet, pardner! I`ve always been more proud of my status as a native Texan than I have been of my U.S. citizenship. The odd thing about the arrogance, though, is the friendliness that beams out from Texans while they`re bragging with the same breath. You don`t know whether to hug them or whip out an atlas and ask, "What about Niagara Falls? What about Yellowstone? What about Yosemite? Texas doesn`t have these landmarks."

After four decades in the Lone Star state, I started muttering to myself, "I don`t want to die here." Texas is a nice place to live, but other parts of the planet can be just as nice - I think. So I moved far, far away - to Oklahoma. Stop smirking about my efforts to circumvent the globe. Oklahoma has allowed me to travel to Caney, Kan.; Joplin, Mo.; and Benton, Ark.

The main thing to remember about Oklahoma is that the state is not even 100 years old. The populations of the state`s two largest cities would rank seventh and eighth, respectively, if they were relocated to Texas. So Oklahoma`s youthful energy is very apparent, and there`s plenty of room for this youthfulness to romp.

Texas and Oklahoma are my backyard, and I`d like to introduce you to some hygienists here.

After entering Texas through Shreveport, our first stop is in Longview, which has grown into being the hub for several smaller cities (Kilgore and Marshall, for example) that were part of the East Texas oil patch. We meet Mikalene Browning-Sutton, the mother of two sons and one daughter under the age of five. She used to work at two offices, but cut back to one office so she could spend more time with the young ones.

She introduces herself by writing, "There`s nothing particularly special about me. I am just a hard worker who struggles to balance career, home, marriage and family, etc."

Then Browning-Sutton mentions that she has spent two consecutive springs in the Dominican Republic on dental missionary trips. "It was truly the most humbling experience in my life. I have a godson there in Puerto Plata named Jose. I fell in love with him when he was five months old when I went on my first mission trip. I am very worried about him and his family after Hurricane George ransacked his land."

Browning-Sutton sounds pretty special to me. She has a kindred spirit in Chandler, a small community outside Tyler on Highway 31 that connects Kilgore with Waco. Misty Icenhower teaches in the dental hygiene clinic at Tyler Junior College and has been practicing for nine years. She sent us photographs from a dental missionary trip that she participates in every year.

"We visit an orphanage with about 80 children and also set up clinics in the surrounding area. This is such an honor for me to be able to do this. The blessings I receive are beyond measure."

It would be easier to get back onto Interstate 20 to visit a couple of hygienists in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. But first I want to make a detour to south Texas. We find Highway 69 and take it to Lufkin, where we turn off onto Highway 59. This is Big Thicket country, and I`ve always preferred the northern end of it. The pine trees are just a little more breathtaking when the land undulates underneath them. The southern end is flat and Houston encroaches into the haunted woods more every year. We grit our teeth for the experience of driving through Houston, turning onto 288 south of downtown, near the Medical Center. There are two quick ways Houstonians escape to the coast. The most common way is Interstate 45 - a six-lane freeway all the way into Galveston. Highway 288 narrows down to four lanes, but it still quickly carries travelers to Lake Jackson and Freeport. In the former, we pause to meet Melissa Barton, a 1992 graduate from the University of Texas at Houston. She works with her sister, a dental assistant, at the Bent Tree Dental Association in Lake Jackson. She has been married for five years and proudly presents her parents with "four, 4-legged grandchildren - three beagles and a Dalmatian."

"Dental hygiene is such a great profession for women in general," Barton writes. "You can contribute financial assistance and still have time for a family life."

We then follow Highway 35 along the coast, skirting around Matagorda Bay and San Antonio Bay into Corpus Christi. The "spring break" season is long over and now families just crowd the beach, seeking relief from the Texas heat.

Jenney Green Todd works in public health here for the Texas Department of Health. She implements dental health programs into the local school systems, senior citizen groups, nursing homes, and Head Start agencies. Her area of responsibility includes several surrounding counties.

"As well as providing education for these centers, I also work in our fixed clinic when I am not on the road," Todd says. "I have been a hygienist for five years now and have worked in a private dental office, for a temporary service, for the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation at a state school, and for the Texas Department of Health. I really enjoy my career and feel as though I have achieved a great deal in the last five years."

It is a long drive back to Dallas, but at least it`s on interstates. Interstate 37 connects with Interstate 35 in San Antonio - the beginning of very familiar territory for me. I headed both directions on the interstate numerous times from 1984 until 1995. Two of my children were born in Waco and, no, we did not even know the Branch Davidians were there until they locked the doors and started shooting.

I should express some familiarity with Dallas, my birthplace and hometown until 1978. But little is recognizable now. During the 1980s, the remaining open spaces between Dallas and Fort Worth were developed. The towns of Keller and Flower Mounds are swallowed up in the urban sprawl that stretches 60 miles from east to west.

Annette Carswell, a resident of Flower Mounds, works for EMS/Electro Medical Systems, the manufacturer of ultrasonic scalers. She received her license in Florida in 1978 and practiced clinical hygiene for eight years. She is one of several hygienists working for EMS.

"The job is exciting and a constant learning experience and challenge," she writes. "EMS respects our ideas in all phases of operation. It is wonderful to be able to use my skills and knowledge working for a company that realizes what a hygienist can bring to a dental company. I have arthritis in my hands now, so clinical hygiene is no longer an option for me."

Keller is one of approximately nine suburbs on the northeast side of Fort Worth. We stop to meet Jeannie Preisser there. Preisser, who has been practicing since 1983, just wrote a short note to RDH. "I worked in the Tulsa area from 1991 to 1993 and would love the excuse to come back to visit friends and former co-workers." We liked the photograph she sent us, but we wish the dog had not been cropped out. At least, we think it`s a dog. We`d also like to hope hygienists would not have to think too hard of excuses to visit Tulsa, RDH`s current home.

Just thinking about Tulsa makes me homesick. But before Oklahoma, there`s one stop remaining way out in West Texas.

We pick up U.S. Highway 287 near Keller. The highway is still how Dallasites drive to Colorado, but most Texans just take advantage of low airfares and fly to the Rockies. The open spaces between Wichita Falls, Vernon, Childress, and Amarillo lull the mind into a trance-like state. Our objective is Canyon, home to about 12,000 people who happen to live near one of the best oases in the western United States: Palo Duro Canyon.

In Canyon, we meet Joan Hudgens, who indicates with her signature that she`s also known to friends as Joan Lasater. A 24-year veteran, Hudgens graduated in 1973 from Amarillo Junior College and began her career in Pampa, staying in the Texas Panhandle until 1981. After two years of working as a hygienist in California, she moved back to Amarillo in 1984.

"The profession has changed so much. I`m glad I`ve been around for all of it," she writes. "I am 61 years old and feel I owe a lot to my profession."

We drive the 15 miles back up to Amarillo and head east on Interstate 40. In Oklahoma City, we head south for a few miles to Pauls Valley. Patty Armer is in the photograph you can`t miss - the one with the motorcycle.

"I moved down here to the country two years ago to escape the hubbub of Oklahoma City," she writes. "I like to ride motorcycles and own a 1400 Suzuki Intruder. This is a wonderful place to jump on the bike and ride from. You can see flat land by going west and hills by going east."

Armer has been a hygienist since 1964. She currently works for a Pauls Valley general dentist four days a week and another practice in Sulphur for two Fridays a month. Her resume reflects that she`s also worked in Oklahoma City, Austin, Houston, and San Antonio.

We return to Oklahoma City to catch the turnpike to Tulsa. The Ozarks begin squirming in eastern Oklahoma, and Tulsa emerges nestled in a series of wooded hills. The road home allows me to meet a hygienist I had not met. Daphne Bachelder works in two Tulsa offices and is in her eighth year of practice.

Bachelder has some good news. "I am an amateur tennis player in the Tulsa area. I am currently ranked in the Top 10 in the state of Oklahoma." Besides being an avid player, she has done some extensive volleying with her career. "I have been down many roads in hygiene, including nutrition, education, double hygiene."

After a rest, we drive up to Bartlesville, which lies near the Kansas border. Willow Allen is now a full-time student in a practical nursing program. Recent surgery on her hands prevents her from practicing dental hygiene for at least one year, and she qualified for state-supported retraining as a nurse.

Allen wrote an article for the Bartlesville paper during National Dental Hygiene Week. Based on her experiences as a volunteer at a clinic on St. Lucia in the West Indies, the article described her difficulties in obtaining floss. She stretched out a donation of a dozen five-yard packs from a periodontist for as long as she could.

She wrote in the article, "Leisurely picnic table discussions with fellow volunteers produced some alternative directions [to acquiring floss]. A surgeon from the U.S. suggested I recommend the gut that is used by surgeons for suturing. A nurse from Germany suggested I try polyester sewing thread. A surgeon from Canada suggested I recommend fishing line since so many people fish here. I was grateful for the ideas, but at a loss to make them work."

She also wrote, "Signs of poverty and poor hygiene can be seen on most of the island, yet the people are care-free, sharing, and caring. The fishermen share their catch; the farmer shares his crops. Cows, pigs, chickens, and goats roam freely. Sometimes I feel that the people are sharing more with me than I am sharing with them. But no one is keeping score."

It`s good to be home in Tulsa. We`ve had a midsummer barbecue, and you`ve listened to my complaints about the crabgrass in the front yard. The purpose of these articles was to introduce you to some of your peers. I hope you enjoyed meeting them too.

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Browning-Sutton: A special godson is missing from photo

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Icenhower: Blessings beyond measure

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Barton (left): Four-legged grandchildren

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Carswell: Enjoys corporate work

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Todd: On the road in South Texas

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Preisser: We didn`t crop this; she did. So where`s the dog?

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Hudgens: At ease in the Panhandle

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Armer: Good views both east and west

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Bachelder: Good news from the court

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Allen: Some floss stories