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Letters from hygienists

April 1, 1999
In September 1998, I had a stroke of pure laziness. Up until that point, we would spend hours agonizing over themes for the covers appearing on RDH. Someone would suggest, for example, "What about this article on communication skills? I`m going down the list here, and it looks like we`ve had every conceivable type of photograph except maybe a hygienist talking to a zebra. So how about it ... we`ll get a model and put her nose to nose with a zebra, and we can have words something to the effect of

Part 1 -

A deluge from Pennsylvania

Mark Hartley, Editor

In September 1998, I had a stroke of pure laziness. Up until that point, we would spend hours agonizing over themes for the covers appearing on RDH. Someone would suggest, for example, "What about this article on communication skills? I`m going down the list here, and it looks like we`ve had every conceivable type of photograph except maybe a hygienist talking to a zebra. So how about it ... we`ll get a model and put her nose to nose with a zebra, and we can have words something to the effect of, `Talking to patients is as easy as black and white.` You know, maybe have the whole photo in black and white, except the model. Whaddya think?"

And I will think: The jury can either adjourn now with this idea, or we can sequester ourselves into a conference room overnight until we come up with a better idea.

Then I had that stroke of pure laziness. RDH can scout for photographers on the Internet. Web sites are wonderful for reviewing portfolios of photographers who live thousands of miles away from you. With the technology, RDH readers can appear on the cover without me experiencing the fear of losing quality control with the photography. The bonus is that I don`t have to stay up late to think of a creative way to illustrate how hygienists "talk."

As a result, I invited readers last September to let me know if they were interested in posing for a cover photograph in front of a photographer in their hometowns. I just needed 12 readers to say "yes" (12 issues a year = 12 models). I would have been thrilled with 30 to 40 replies, so that I could have a "choice." As I mentioned in the December 1998 Editor`s Note, I stopped counting at 124. But the replies kept trickling in, and my best guess is that we received more than 150 replies from readers.

Most of the responses fulfilled our simple request for a photo and some general information about their background, hobbies, etc. Quite a few, though, wrote long and inspirational letters, giving birth to this series, "Letters from hygienists." I remain grateful to all of the readers who took the time to find a photograph of themselves that they liked, sat down to write at least a note, and then prepare the materials for mailing.

Reading the letters was sort of like taking a tour across the country. The photograph would be beside the letter on my desk, and I could visualize them playing with the kids, laughing with their colleagues, or relaxing with a hobby. I would like to share some of their comments. Let`s start in Pennsylvania. It felt as if I needed to carry an umbrella with me there. A deluge of responses from the Keystone state required a separate folder. We`ll start the tour in the western end of the state, since in upcoming issues, we`ll explore New England and the rest of mid-Atlantic states.

For starters, in the western end of the state, I was interested in letters from a "rookie" and a veteran returning to the profession.

Sherry Ricci in McKees Rock wrote us after reading Cathy Alty`s article ("Resuming Your Career") last fall. Ricci said that, at age 39 with two children, she decided to leave the family business and return to dental hygiene. I can certainly understand the difficulty of such a "middle age" decision. There are times when I`ve made one too many typos, struggled with one too many deadlines, that I ponder the luxury of doing something else. She did not say what the business was, but most people can appreciate that such a business usually fosters an intense unity among family members. We can also commiserate with the long hours of work and dedication that family businesses seem to require.

"Due to the personal demands of working in a family business, I found the dental hygiene profession to be much more attractive with flexible hours and income potential," she wrote.

The state board of dentistry required her to retake the clinical portion of the Northeast regionals, and she enrolled in a 90-hour clinical remediation program at the University of Pittsburgh`s School of Dental Hygiene. While reading the letter, I had this vision of a mother-in-law or a brother-in-law frowning at this career change. But Ricci states, "During my transition, I received a tremendous amount of support from my husband and my family."

After 15 years away from the profession, Ricci now works in a pediatric practice and is "loving every minute of it!"

On the other end of the spectrum is Melinda Miller. She may have crossed Ricci`s path at the University of Pittsburgh. But Miller is in her early 20s, graduating from the dental hygiene school in 1997. She appears to have done all the right things as a student. She earned a scholarship for her academic work and volunteered in a sealant program for underprivileged children, participated in a mouthguard project for soccer players at two Catholic schools, and discussed oral hygiene with patients at a children`s hospital.

As we all know, thousands of students show a fierce commitment toward their dental hygiene education every day. What made me pause while reading her letter was one of her reasons for wanting to pose for the RDH cover. She wrote, "I think it would be different to see a younger hygienist. Don`t get me wrong. The hygienists that you feature are great-looking, but your magazine seems to target the married, older hygienist. I, along with other younger hygienists, sometimes feel left out because we have yet to establish our careers and families. The truth is many females and males attend hygiene school directly after high school, leaving them at the tender age of 19 or 20 upon graduation. I speak from personal experience when I say older hygienists, office staff, and patients aren`t always receptive to a single, young hygienist."

Ouch! I certainly am guilty. People sometimes approach the editor of RDH and ask about the "typical hygienist." I`ll straighten up into my posture of being all-knowing and state, "Most of them are women in their 30s and 40s. Unless they`re practicing in a Western state, they tend to earn $30,000 to $40,000 a year ..."

And so on. Miller`s letter reminded me to be careful about depicting what`s "typical." Of course, there are also many hygienists who have reached the sixth decade of life blissfully content with their profession. We`ll stop by and visit with some of them later.

The tour stops just once in central Pennsylvania. The prankster in me just wants to visit the office where Michelle DiSabato works in Altoona and yell out, "Dr. Thaler!" in a panicky voice. DiSabato wrote in her letter, "I am currently working for a large family practice in Altoona, Pennsylvania. The office includes Dr. William Thaler (father), Dr. Bruce Thaler (son), Dr. Jonathan Thaler (son), and Dr. Barb Thaler (pediatric dentist), wife of Jonathan Thaler." In my opinion, DiSabato is the lucky one in the office. As mentioned above, I am tempted to raise my voice and call out for Dr. Thaler. Watching all the heads swivel at once would be mischievously entertaining. The surname is also one letter away from the pseudonym I had chosen for myself when younger and still envisioning countless novels for the future. I was going to scramble the letters of my last name to Thayler. It`s nice to know that the pen name is close in spelling to one that`s actually being used by a family.

DiSabato, who has been practicing since 1992, also noted in her letter that the Thaler family practice is "a very pleasant working environment, which only adds to my love of my profession. I am currently working four days a week Monday through Thursday." I also like the photograph that she submitted, although I`m still trying to puzzle out the breed of the puppy. I want to hold it too.

Quite a few letters arrived from eastern Pennsylvania, most of them apparently within an easy drive to Philadelphia. I want to see the two sets of sisters at Parkland Dental Center, a three-doctor practice in Schnecksville. Debbie Yanders ended up at Parkland eight years ago after sister Donna, a dental assistant, lobbied on her behalf.

Debbie Yanders wrote about the addition of the second set of sisters this way: "Then Michele joined our hygiene staff. After she was there for a couple of years, she said her sister was moving back home from Delaware and was looking for a job. We all agreed if Lori was as nice as Michele, we wanted her. So we expanded our hygiene staff once again. It`s been three years now, and we all are still working great together."

The gang at Parkland Dental sent two letters to RDH. Lori Held wrote the other one, providing more background information about the sisters. Michele and Lori take craft classes together, while Debbie and Donna share the passion of collecting Longaberger baskets.

The next stop is Doylestown, so that we can visit Lori Krangel. Hygienists have always impressed me by being so actively involved in their communities. Krangel wrote of two interesting programs in which she participates. The first is her "proud" membership in Art Goes To School, which aids in teaching art appreciation to elementary schoolchildren.

"As I hold up a reproduction of Gilbert Stuart`s portrait of George Washington, I may lead the children into a discussion as to why the subject seems to be grimacing in pain," Krangel writes. "Is it that George Washington is dealing with the burden of running a new country, or is it his ill-fitting dentures? Ah, the perfect opportunity to expound on the lack of quality dental care in the 18th century, even for a wealthy landowner like George Washington."

During recent summers, her family has spent time with a "city child" as part of a program called Fresh Air Fund. She quickly noticed that their guest, Tenessee, covered her mouth when smiling. Krangel said, "Her front tooth, #9, had been cracked in half due to a fall she had taken. Tenessee told me that she did not receive dental care after the accident."

Krangel set about the process of restoring the tooth, thanks to the cooperation of her boss, Dr. Dennis Eble. "While I was doing her prophy, I realized that this was Tenessee`s very first visit to a dental office. Through the patience and skill of Dr. Eble and his staff, Tenessee walked out of the office with a brand new smile. In fact, she didn`t stop smiling during her entire visit."

While charity is not uncommon in dentistry, it never fails to be heart-warming to read of the profession`s many gifts to a community. Krangel, who has been practicing since 1979, also wrote, "In the last few years, I have tried to become a more-rounded individual by getting involved ... I continue to explore different areas of creativity and personal growth. No longer do I feel that I am a dental hygiene drone." I would venture to say that she is a very successful hygienist.

Earlier, I hung my head in shame when Melinda Miller caught RDH portraying the "typical" hygienist. But, when we stop in Bensalem, I think I`ve met a genuine role model for the profession. Bonnie Levin has been practicing since 1979, although an asterisk notes that she started as a certified dental assistant back in 1974. Out of curiosity, how much does the rest of her biography strike a "kindred-spirit" chord with you?

- She works 28 hours for two female general dentists. The office is four minutes away from the house. Levin writes, "I`ve been at this practice over four years. I especially enjoy seeing patients who live and work in my community. I feel as though I can provide them with a service not many people find themselves doing. I am often asked by patients: How can you clean people`s teeth? My answer is, generally, that`s what I know and do best. It`s almost second nature."

- Her husband is a laboratory director at two hospitals. He plays clarinet in a community band and is an avid tennis player. "He also likes taking me to dinners, shows, and movies," she said.

Their three sons - ages 11, 13, and 16 - are also very musical. The two younger ones favor soccer, while the oldest boy focuses on tennis and bowling.

"Together, my family keeps me involved in many activities," she writes. "When I`m not working, I am bowling, golfing, playing tennis, or bicycle riding. During my quiet time, I am either doing needlepoint, playing piano, reading, or attempting to make a special side dish, dessert, or dinner for my family. I often wish for more hours or an extra day in the week."

- On every Wednesday night for the past four years, Levin gathers with five other women for a spirited game of mah jong.

- Her license plate reads, "RDH Sports Mom." She concludes, "My career and my family mean everything to me and continue to make each day another new and exciting challenge."

So, can you identify with Bonnie Levin?

We finally end up at Philadelphia. Tracye Moore is a member of the Tri-State Dental Hygienists` Society. The component society of the National Dental Hygienists` Association was formed in 1995 by four minority hygienists in Philadelphia. A photograph of the group appears with this article. While the activities of the society are too numerous to list here, their scholarship fund raisers and mentoring programs play no small part in ensuring that minorities are well-represented in the profession.

Join me in New Jersey next month.

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Ricci: Made a middle-age decision

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Miller: Nothing wrong with being young

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DiSabato: An easy practical joke

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The Helds and Yanders: Two sets of sisters

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Krangel: Using art to deliver a dental message

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Levin: A kindred spirit?

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Moore: Pushing for a stronger minority representation

Members of the Tri-State Dental Hygienists` Society pause for a picture during a recent bowling outing. The society, a component of the National Dental Hygienists` Association, includes (standing, left to right) Barbara Mack, Tanya Flood, Donna Truitt, Deborah Adolphus, Lisa Vaughn, Blythe Evans, Leslie Robinson, Jackie Powell, Della Ball, (sitting) Tanya Kels, Margery Williams, LaVerna Wilson, Tracye Moore, Ivy Al-Fareed, and Sheryl Bailey.

More RDH pen pals in Pennsylvania

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Regina Urbanski: Practicing in King of Prussia

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Beth Neal: Working in Indiana, Pa.

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Tina Keffer: Colgate representative

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Christine Monagahn Gariano: Son Daniel was born January 1997