by Katie Rheinschmidt, RDH
For this Midwestern hygienist, living and working in Switzerland was a dream come true.
For as long as I have been a hygienist, I've been in-trigued with the possibility of living, working, and traveling in Europe. Within 10 years of my graduation in 1991, my dream became reality. I found myself practicing hygiene at the top of the world - St. Moritz, Switzerland!
In October 2000, the time was right for a change. As an RDH reader, I saw advertisements for jobs throughout the United States and occasionally in Europe. RDH's classified section was the first and last place I checked.
And there it was - a private advertisement for a practicing dental hygienist in St. Moritz, Switzerland. This was a chance of a lifetime and I had to go for it.
The position was due to begin on the first of December and required a commitment of one year - "inquire for more details." The end of October was not far off and time was running out. Before going to work the next morning, I phoned the office in Switzerland to find out if the job was still open. I was elated to hear the position had not yet been filled and that the dentist was still considering applicants from several countries. His description of the office and procedures sounded very similar to how I practiced in the Midwest. The following day, I faxed my resume, dental hygiene license, a photo, and a personal page to his office.
We spoke several times throughout the weekend and the following Monday, and asked quite a few questions of each other. At this point, I knew I had to make a decision. Moving overseas would be a huge step for me, as I was (and am) very family oriented. Many questions and concerns were running through my mind. It would be a great opportunity to grow personally and professionally, but could I do it? One thing was certain: I would never know if I didn't try! I knew an offer would come soon; the dentist was going on vacation in a few days and would not return for three weeks. If he offered me the position, I was ready to accept it.
The following Tuesday morning the call came! I was offered the job and accepted without hesitation. The start date would be the first Monday of December. Time was flying by and arrangements had to be made. I was beginning to wonder, "What have I done now?"
Reorganizing my personal life would be a real issue. Within four weeks, I had to give notice to my landlord, make arrangements with my bank, inform the post office, organize tax information, say goodbye to family and friends, and deal with several other personal matters before leaving for Switzerland.
One month after accepting the job, I was on my way to Europe for the first time. I arrived at the Zurich airport filled with excitement, worry, and just a little sadness from leaving my friends and family. My new boss greeted me with the traditional kisses on the cheeks and we were on our way to St. Moritz. The adventure had begun!
Getting to St. Moritz by car takes three hours from Zurich if the mountain passes are open and clear. The drive winds through beautiful alpine scenery, including the impressive 7,504 foot Julier Pass. The Engadine valley, our destination, is considered by many to be the most beautiful in the world. Many of the mountain peaks exceed 12,000 feet and the villages have a uniqueness all of their own. When I arrived, the Engadine slopes and valley were already filled with snow and the ski season had begun. The winter of 2001 was a record one for snow in the valley, making it a wonderful season for all.
After arriving at my employer's home in St. Moritz, there was only time for a light snack and then a well-needed rest. When I awoke later, still somewhat jetlagged, I spent time getting to know my new boss. My employer, his wife, and two teenage daughters are wonderful people who put me immediately at ease. The first two nights I dined with the family and got acquainted with the town. On Sunday, it was time to move into my new flat and start getting organized.
My first day at the office included staff introductions and a review of office protocol. Procedures were typical of what you would find in a dental office in the United States. Having done a thorough phone interview, there were few surprises. It was encouraging to find that sterilization procedures were up-to-date and that my instruments were as the dentist described. The office was very modern and used the most current techniques and procedures. The practice had two dentists: my employer, who is a Swiss native, and his associate, a gentleman from Germany. The office had one part-time and three full-time assistants who rotate duties such as chairside assisting, sterilization, and working the front desk;. I was the sole hygienist. My colleagues were all very helpful and tried to make things run as smoothly as possible. Of the six employees, five speak moderate to fluent English. I can now communicate reasonably well with the other girl in German.
I met many other hygienists from America, Canada, and even Sweden, and each came at a different point in their careers. Some stayed for only a few months, while others are still here after five years. Some have even come back to do it again. I learned that there are American hygienists working throughout Switzerland and in other parts of Europe as well. Ieven met one hygienist who was practicing hygiene in the states as well as running a placement agency.
Although the ability to speak a foreign language was not a prerequisite for the job, communication would become one of the many challenges ahead. German is the main language spoken in Switzerland, but throughout the country the official languages include French, Italian, and Romansch. St. Moritz lies within the Italian Swiss region, so many of our patients speak Italian as a first language, although most are also fluent in German. Most Europeans are reasonably conversant in English, due to heavy tourism and the fact that it's a relatively universal language. This makes life easier for Americans working in Europe. My employer was fluent in five languages, so he as well as my colleagues became my translators. I soon began to learn German and currently can communicate fairly simple terms. I am continuing to work on my Italian. Several American hygienists preceded me in the office, so our patients didn't find my presence unusual. The patients were all very understanding with my communication skills - or the lack thereof. I used many visual aids and sometimes "cheat sheets" on the side.
The high quality of dentistry performed in the office attracts people from all over Europe. Many tourists who vacation in this area also have their dental work done while they are on holiday. And, of course, there are many local patients as well.
My boss's first priority was to provide the highest quality treatment for his patients. His philosophy matched my own - my patients have always been my greatest concern. After getting to know each other, we realized that our work ethic is the same and that we completely agreed on how patients should be treated. Now the only concern was how to convince the patients of the need for the highest quality treatment. As hygienists all over can relate, it goes back to the old saying, "you can lead a horse to water." During my daily routine, I encountered challenges that every hygienist faces. Some patients are smokers, or coffee drinkers; some brush too hard, and others not enough. The basic education principles remain the same for everyone, although patients with money and education may differ in their acceptance of our advice from those on budgets. The Swiss have private health care, so most pay out of pocket and have to be convinced they are getting their money's worth.
Let's not forget about the other great perks that come with working in Switzerland. The social life is terrific! I was very fortunate to be in St. Moritz - the "Top of the World." The area is almost legendary, and most agree there is no place like it. St. Moritz has hosted the Winter Olympics twice, as well as many world skiing championships. The community also offers a diverse array of summer sports - around 130 summer events also are held in the Engadine valley. The area is truly a wonder of nature and fascinating culture. It is a place that draws many of the rich and famous as well as those who just love the beauty of the Engadine Alps.
St. Moritz is the oldest winter resort in the world - travelers have been visiting since 1864. More than half of the hotels in St. Moritz are four and five star; those who can afford the ultimate stay at the Palace Hotel, Kulm Hotel, or the Suvretta House Hotel, to name a few. Those who merely wish to enjoy the high life can stay at the Stefanni Hotel, Schwiezerhof Hotel, or the Hauser Hotel. Restaurants offer international cuisine and several local specialties. St. Moritz is full of marvelous opportunities for shopping - for a price! You can buy anything from fine jewelry, sporting goods, fashionable clothing, specialty foods, or handcrafted items. It's like shopping in Paris, Rome, or Beverly Hills. St. Moritz is anything but ordinary.
The common misconception is that St. Moritz caters only to very rich, but that is not entirely true. The area may seem unaffordable; however, my wages compensated for the high cost of living. I enjoyed many things and had the opportunity to save.
Switzerland is a paradise for those who love outdoor recreation. It has long been known for its scenic mountains, lakes, glaciers, and valleys. The primary winter activities are Alpine and Nordic skiing, but natives as well as tourists enjoy ice skating, snowboarding, mountain climbing, curling, paragliding, horse-drawn sleighs, and sledding. St. Moritz has world-class bobsledding and the competitive Cresta skeleton (sled) run. In the summer, the area offers numerous activities such as hiking, biking, inline skating, windsurfing/sailing, and equestrian sports festivals.
Travel in Switzerland is easy due to its small size plus the availability of excellent train service, cog railways, cable cars, buses, and excellent roads. It is famous for its alpine passes, and its tunnels are vital for transportation between northern and southern Europe.
Beautiful areas surround Switzer-land. In spring 2001, my mother and oldest sister visited. We took a bus tour of Switzerland and had a memorable time. It was a great way to see the country and enabled us to tour the main sites and learn some history. For such a small country, Switzerland offers a great deal.
Italy was and is incredible! I can't get enough of the history, people, food, and wine. Bella Italia! Every place - from the small, northern town of Chiavenna to the Vatican in Rome was an unforgettable experience. Italy was where I really learned to travel in Europe. Go with an open mind and obey the adage, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."
It seems everyone wants to go to Paris. And yes, I made it there and it is a beautiful city. It offers some amazing history and beautiful sights along the Seine. Unfortunately, I traveled there in August; it was unbearably hot, and our hotel room had no air conditioning. I recommend visiting when the weather is cooler.
Germany, my grandfather's home, was of special interest for me. I was fortunate to spend some time at his birth place in the Black Forest. This southwestern part of the country is close to Switzerland. The small towns and villages are wonderful, and are noted for woodworking and cuckoo clocks. I hope to see much more of Germany.
Austria also is very close, as it adjoins Switzerland on the northeast. Vienna and Innsbruck are beautiful; I also took a trip to Solden, a ski resort in the Austrian Alps.
My experience in Switzerland was nothing short of astonishing. My time there allowed me to grow both personally and professionally. Working in Europe is something I would highly recommend to anyone. It has given me many marvelous memories that I will cherish forever.
Katie Rheinschmidt, RDH, wrote this account while still in Switzerland. She has since returned to the United States and is now practicing in Elk River, Wis. An 11-year veteran who graduated from North Central Technical College in Wausau, Wis., Rhein-schmidt can be contacted at krehein [email protected].
For me, European travel was a large part of the attraction of working overseas. My boss gave me the option of working four or five days per week and I chose to work only four, which allowed me to travel more frequently. Whether traveling alone, or with friends, it is always an adventure. Travel can be simple, safe, and comfortable as long as you are sensible. There are many guidebooks out there, and fellow travelers are always willing to share experiences with you.
Every bit of advice is worthwhile, but you will learn best by just doing it! After all of my sojourns, I've discovered two essentials - pack light and have patience! Don't become the "ugly American." As for the rest, invest in one good travel guide for local information on planes, trains, automobiles, currency, food, and sites to see.