Th 83240

It's an Adventure

Feb. 1, 2002

'Hank' travels the world, yet settles down in an operatory blocked by just three traffic lights.

Blauw enjoys his daily commute to the office. The trip takes about eight minutes and includes only two stop signs. He claims to have destroyed three helmets and one motorcycle.
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Henry "Hank" Blauw has an interesting past, as well as an interesting present; and it's certain he will have an equally interesting future. But in the beginning as a Chicago native, Blauw recalls his early dental experiences as "limited to seeing the dentist every four or five years in a single-operatory practice above the Walgreen's Pharmacy."

He remembers, "The dentist cleaned my teeth only once, using the prophy cup, pumice, and a belt-driven motor at high speed."

In 1962, following high school graduation and with three years of vocational auto mechanics training, Blauw joined the Air Force at age 17. He said, "During basic training, a kind, unknown personnel clerk, for whom I will always hold a warm spot in my heart, placed me in the medical field."

Blauw was shipped off to Greenville Air Force Base, enrolled in a medical fundamentals course where he then chose a dental career as "the least of all evils." From there, it was off to Gunter Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., for an eight-week apprentice dental technician training course. Training consisted of pairing off and cleaning a partner's teeth.

"That was my introduction to cleaning teeth," Blauw said.

Blauw treats a patient at Deming Dental Services.
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His first duty station was at Biggs Air Force Base in El Paso, Texas, where he was assigned to a supervisor responsible for on-the-job training. "One day, following my rotations through general dentistry, prosthodontics, front office, X-ray, and oral surgery, my supervisor said to me, 'Hank, it's time for you to learn how to clean teeth.'" He admits to being ready, willing, but maybe not able.

"My trainer allowed me to observe a prophylaxis, showed me how to insert a Cavitron tip, and had me start on the next patient. He then left the room. I was literally on my own," he recollects. Three months later, Blauw was training the next rookie.

By 1966, Blauw, now married, re-enlisted in the Air Force and was reassigned to Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Mont. During that same year, the Air Force created the preventive dental field — its answer to dental hygienists. "Because I was tired of working in an amalgam pit, I decided it was time to retrain," he says. "There were two preventive dental specialists at Malmstrom to train me."

Blauw said the training consisted of him working chairside, scaling away, and occasionally receiving a "signing off" on his training record. "I never had a patient checked before or after a cleaning," he recalls. After six months, the Air Force certified Blauw as a trained preventive dental specialist.

"I did learn one concept from that experience," he quipped, "that dental floss should be used daily to remove plaque. Before that, the only time I ever saw it used was to check for overhangs on new restorations."

That was his training.

Blauw's kokopelli quilt is on display outside his operatory.
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Then came Vietnam...
From there, the Air Force sent Blauw to a newly opened base called Utapio on the Gulf of Siam in Thailand during the Vietnam conflict. "The nice thing about being at a newly opened base was that everyone was there to do a job," he said. "No one was yet there to solve problems that we had the privilege to create. In fact, the problem solvers came with the replacements."

"I was at the right place at the right time," he said. "It was a totally different culture and lifestyle, and the natives were very friendly." He cleaned teeth, unsupervised, at this base for one year.

The clinic had four dental chairs available for nine people who needed them. Blauw worked third shift. "Occasionally, when I used the Cavitron," he says, "the saliva ejector sucked up this funny white, chalky solution. What was that stuff? Do you think someone had forgotten to explain something to me?" he joked.

His tour of duty was coming to an end. Number of patients evaluated by someone else: Zero. Number of hours of continuing education: Zero.

His handmade quilt depicting two pumas (right), called "Keepers of the North," was donated to a local school classroom.
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Then came more...
While stationed at Davis-Montham Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz., Davis-Montham sent him to a seven-week preventive dental course at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas. Today, he looks back at that experience and reflects, "After spending 24 months in hygiene school, I now realize that seven weeks is not much; however, that was longer than the two hours of one-to-one discussion I had before that class."

After completing the course, Blauw returned to Davis-Montham and was assigned to assist a periodontist for three months. "The main dental clinic was too small for all assigned personnel," he said. "There was a dental annex at the back of the hospital where three of us preventive dental techs could practice our duties in solitude."

After completing the course, Blauw returned to Davis-Montham and was assigned to assist a periodontist for three months. "The main dental clinic was too small for all assigned personnel," he said. "There was a dental annex at the back of the hospital where three of us preventive dental techs could practice our duties in solitude."

One year later, the periodontist was reassigned, and the replacement did not believe in the treatment modalities of the previous periodontist. So Blauw received another education about periodontal treatment.

Tucson was a bit too warm for his liking. His fingerprints with the skin still attached were sticking to the steering wheel of his car, so he pursued an opportunity at Myrtle Beach Air Force Base in South Carolina — the Grand Strand's miles of open beaches.

"The weather was great," he recalled, "if you didn't count the occasional hurricane!"

The hospital had a two-chair dental clinic that Blauw manned for 2 1/2 years on his own. "Independent practice was great, as were the years of fun in the sun," he said.

Blauw's next assignment landed him at Eielson Air Force Base, 26 miles from Fairbanks, Alaska, which he credits as the best military assignment he experienced. Blauw drove the 2,000 unpaved miles up the Alcan Highway during the summer months, pulling a travel trailer with seven holes in his gas tank.

"When I arrived in July," he reminisces, "I wondered why anyone would ever want to leave that place." August began to answer that question. Blauw's car required a battery blanket, engine block heater, interior heater, and a junction box with a long extension cord. To be considered cold in Fairbanks meant it had to be at least -40°F!

"Our television was a three-week tape delay and, when the tapes didn't arrive, sometimes they just turned the TV station off at 8 p.m.," he said. In the summer, Blauw saw 24 hours of daylight for a full month. By December, he saw as little as 2 1/2 hours of "almost" light. "The northern lights made up for it," he says.

Blauw also recalls an earthquake fault line between Eielson and Fairbanks.

"I was informed of that after I felt the house shake one evening!" he laughed, adding that 3.3 level quakes are not uncommon. Blauw claims the Air Force personnel in Fairbanks were the best group of people he has ever served with, including a periodontist, an oral surgeon, an orthodontist, and a prosthodontist. "Talk about an education," he said, "it was there."

His 30-month tour of duty ended, and Blauw was sent to Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, N.M. At Holloman, Blauw happily practiced in a one-chair clinic in the hospital. "I don't know if they didn't want me around, or if I was the only one who would show up and work without supervision at these satellite clinics," he said.

He then attended the NCO Academy for six weeks of leadership training. When he returned, the hospital needed a First Sergeant for one month. "Why just screw up a dental clinic when I could screw up a whole hospital?" he thought to himself. That single month stretched into a year.

"I was ready to return to the dental clinic, when I received a letter from headquarters stating the preventive dental field had been eliminated and that if I did not find a new position for myself, they would. I was proactive," he said. "I found one!"

He retired three years later from the position of superintendent of surgical services with the rank of senior master sergeant and with a bachelor's degree in management.

Hank heads to school...
Eager to practice hygiene after 20 years in the Air Force, Blauw enrolled in the dental hygiene program at El Paso Community College in 1985. "There were three of us ex-military teeth cleaners in that class," he says. "Even with our backgrounds, we still had to study hard and had a lot to learn." He adds, "With hindsight of both military preceptorship training and school training, I now only believe in formal training."

Blauw is a member of the ADHA and serves as Southern Trustee for the New Mexico State Dental Hygiene Association.

"Did I ever think I was a good technician in the military?" he asks. "Yes. I now know that I did not have sufficient education to know what questions to ask!"

Blauw now practices in Deming, N.M., a quiet farming community of 14,000 people near the U.S. border with Mexico. "We have year-round mild weather and a slow-paced lifestyle," he said. "When I arrived, the old timers told me that if I wore out one pair of shoes here, I would never want to leave, but if I wore out two pairs of shoes here, I couldn't afford to leave."

His response was, "I told them that if I had known there were two stoplights in town, I would have looked for a smaller place." He guesses the older-timers were probably right, since Deming now has three stop lights, and he's still there.

"When I first arrived, most of the patients thought it unusual to have a male hygienist," he says, "but after all these years, they are used to me, and I am still the second newest employee in this office." In 1985, when he arrived in Deming, he was the only hygienist in the county. Now there are five who work in offices in or near Deming.

"From all the articles I am now reading," Blauw says, "I did everything wrong when I interviewed for this position. I don't have a contract; not even a handshake agreement. I never asked for a raise. I don't have a job description. I don't have a production goal to meet." He describes his present working conditions as ideal.

Blauw is an employee of Deming Dental Services, a general practice owned by Dr. James J. O'Connell, also a Chicago native. There are seven people in this office in addition to Dr. O'Connell and Blauw: two front-office personnel, two assistants, and an in-house dental lab technician.

Blauw claims what he likes most about dental hygiene is interacting with his patients. "When I provide the service, patients hold me responsible, good or bad. There is no sign on my door stating any policy that is signed 'The Management.'"

For relaxation, Blauw makes approximately eight hand-sewn quilts a year and gives them all away. "I have made more than 100 so far," he says.

His other passion is motorcycling. "The climate allows me to ride to work almost year round," he says, "and there are many quiet back roads and national forests nearby in which to ride." The commute to the office takes eight minutes and has two stop signs. Blauw vacations each August by taking a motorcycle ride through the Rocky Mountains up to Canada by every back road he can find. Glacier National Park in Montana is a favorite destination.

Hank's future
Blauw says he never really considered dental school for several reasons. "First," he says, "every older dentist I worked with said he would never put up with the way he was treated by his instructors in dental school if he were older when enrolled. Second, I had a family to support and five to six more years of school did not seem practical. Third, I don't have a real desire to do most of what dentists do."

Blauw credits his formal training as a hygienist the best situation, saying, "In no way was the (military's) Preventive Dental School training time satisfactory compared with my present knowledge. When I left the Air Force, I had never attended a continuing dental education course nor seen a dental hygiene magazine."

Blauw joined the ADHA in 1994 because he wanted to support an organization that would back hygienists. "I started to attend the local district meetings because, although I knew a lot of dentists from dental meetings, I didn't know any hygienists other than my classmates. I wanted to learn about what was going on out there."

He claims he used to be able to brag that he was the only hygienist within 10,000 square miles. That's no longer true. "At that first meeting, the Southern Trustee resigned because he was moving away," says Blauw, "so I volunteered and the other hygienists encouraged me to accept."

Recently, the New Mexico governor named Blauw as a member of the State Dental Hygiene Committee. "I hope to be working as a clinical hygienist until, for my patients' well-being, it's time that I retire," he says.

The Yin and the Hank of Hygiene...
When asked about the future of hygiene, Blauw has mixed feelings. Occasionally, people have asked him if he would recommend dental hygiene as a career, and he tells them the following.

  • If you are a person who needs to go up a ladder in life, then hygiene is probably not for you. (Basically, I am doing the same thing I did 40 years ago.)
  • The ADA controls the scope of our livelihood. Most hygienists need to hook up with a dentist who will tell them when they can and will work and for how much money. Those of us who work for the good dentists will stay with them; the others are looking for the good ones.
  • Last year, there were 5,100 dental hygiene graduates and 3,900 dentist graduates. About 60 percent of all dentists use hygienists. Texas is predicting that within a few years there will be two licensed hygienists for every dentist in the state. New Mexico dentists are pushing to open three new hygiene programs. In other states, the dental associations are attempting to lower their standards. In essence, let the public be damned!
  • When the dentists have district meetings, 5 percent of the local hygienists attend. At the district dental hygiene meetings, about 5 percent of the dentists attend.
  • In most dental offices, the hygienist is the last one hired and the first one fired if business starts to slow down.

On the Positive Side

  • As a hygienist, you perform a valuable service to your community.
  • Hygiene allows you to work part-time, if that's what you want to do.
  • With so many hygiene schools opening, there is a need for qualified instructors.
  • New Mexico has several hygiene students who have significantly impressed me with their ability to get things done. There is hope in the leadership for tomorrow.

Name: Henry "Hank" Blauw
Family: Three children, one grandchild
Address: Deming, New Mexico
Current Employment: Deming Dental Services, a general practice owned by Dr. James J. O'Connell
Previous Employment: Career Air Force; honorable discharge as superintendent of surgical services, rank of senior master sergeant
Education: AA in dental hygiene, El Paso Community College, El Paso, Texas; BS in management
Membership: ADHA; NMDHA, Southern Trustee; State Dental Hygiene Committee
Hobbies: Motorcycle trips, quilting
What he most enjoys about being a hygienist: Interacting with his patients