Growing With The Challenge Of Change

Aug. 1, 2002
A long-time veteran discovers an 'invigorating' new chapter for her career.

by Cappy C. Snider, RDH

A long-time veteran discovers an 'invigorating' new chapter for her career.

Comfort is something we all enjoy having in our lives. Whether it is in the form of a long-time circle of friends, our favorite sweatshirt, or an old terry-cloth robe we just can't let go of, we look forward to our lives being full of things that make us comfortable. This is my story of how I finally mustered the courage to let go of a very comfortable aspect of my life and take a chance on something different, something that has proven to be an invigorating new chapter of my dental hygiene career. I hope it will inspire others who find themselves in the same dilemma to take a chance on finding comfort in new challenges and experiences.

When I graduated from my dental hygiene program, I accepted a position in a local periodontal practice. Even though I would work at other offices on a temporary basis, the periodontal office became my primary employment for the next 13 years. I loved the people I worked with; over the years they became like family to me. My work was challenging and fulfilling, and I got to know many wonderful patients.

During my last year in this practice, I began to think more about my career. My mind was full of questions. Was this a career, or did I have a "job"? Where would I be 10 years from now? Did I want to be on the same level professionally at the end of that time? These were very hard questions to ask myself and even harder to answer. I was so comfortable with my routine, my patients, and my co-workers. I had always thought I would work at this office forever. Then one day a lunch-hour meeting with my employer changed everything.

When I began to work in this practice, I was fresh from dental hygiene school and very inexperienced. I just did as I was told and picked up the routine of the previous hygienist, following the directions of the doctor and staff. I wanted to fit in. The patient load was overwhelming compared to school. Just making it through the day was my highest priority. Gradually, my confidence grew and I eventually was able to customize each patient's hygiene treatment.

I also began to think for myself. As a result, I believed some procedures in the office needed updating. Periodontal treatment had changed greatly since I graduated from college. There were exciting advances and new protocols.

Our office had not changed since I began working there. I wanted a chance to explore these new advances and techniques in treatment of periodontal disease, but my employer was satisfied with tried-and-true techniques that he felt comfortable with after nearly three decades of successful practice.

Indeed, I had seen many patients improve greatly with these same tried-and-true techniques, but I was still curious about new advances that could possibly offer even more success. After discussing these thoughts and concerns with my employer during a lunch-hour meeting, it was clear that we were at an impasse. I was so disappointed.

The events of our meeting weighed heavily on my mind as I began my afternoon with my first patient. I was trying to think of solutions to my questions. Suddenly, I felt tears coming to my eyes. Where did they come from? I was in the middle of a periodontal maintenance appointment; this was not the time or place for tears! All at once, it came to me - I had to leave this office if I were to grow in my chosen profession.

This revelation produced an enormous sadness in me. But a small spark of excitement entered my mind as new questions started to replace the sense of loss. Where would I begin to look for new employment? What if I left and I hated it? Who would take care of the patients I had grown so fond of through the years? Was I just being foolish? I decided not to be hasty, but just keep my eyes and ears open for an opportunity.

A few weeks later, I attended a continuing education program to get a few extra hours toward my mandatory yearly quota. The presenter was Anne Guignon, a practicing dental hygienist just like me. Not only did I get the hours I needed, I also got to hear Anne tell me that I was a professional, that I was of value to my patients and the dental practice, and that what I was doing was important. A big light bulb turned on in my head. I left that day with renewed confidence in my decision to look for a new dental practice. Until then, I had only been doing a job. Now I knew I was after so much more. That seminar was a turning point in my career.

The weeks rolled by and, one day after a particularly frustrating afternoon, I called a local temporary employment service that I had worked with over the years. I explained my situation and asked them to keep their eyes open for an office that needed a full-time hygienist. I explained the location parameters I was willing to work in and the number of days weekly I would prefer. I laid out my criteria and explained that this was a huge step for me. I would not accept a new position until the right one came along. I could be patient and wait. As it turned out, I didn't have to. The lady at the agency had an exciting position to tell me about right away!

As I listened to all of the information she had to share, this new prospect sounded really exciting. The location was ideal, the pay was great, and the benefits were unbelievable! More importantly, the dentist was excited about meeting me. The temporary service had spoken to the doctor about my years of periodontal experience and the fact that I was looking for a chance to be part of a growing and innovative practice.

As an added bonus, the new office was located in the town my husband and I planned to move to in the next couple of years. We set a date for a working interview so I could meet the staff and the doctor. It was a few weeks away, but I was patient.

The temporary service called to say that the new doctor wanted to meet me privately prior to the working interview to discuss any concerns I might have. We arranged an appointment.

It had been many years since I had been in this position. What questions would I be asked and what should I ask about in return? I hoped to find information about interviewing on an Internet Web site hosted by Amy Nieves, RDH ( The site has a special section with interview questions that I printed out.

After a few modifications for my own circumstances, I took this three-page list of questions to my interview. I think I asked more questions that day than the doctor did! I was determined to have as much information as possible before making a decision. My previous work experience had taught me what I wanted to know upfront.

The interview went very well, and I felt a genuine connection with this doctor. We were about the same age; we both had small children and a similar value system. Could it get any better? The next step was my "working" interview.

That day was a real challenge. I had been on automatic pilot for many years, as far as my work routine went. On the day of my working interview, I felt thrust into a whirlwind. I didn't know where anything was. I was used to a small staff and a quiet atmosphere. The rhythm of a specialist's office is very different than a general practice. By the end of the day my head was spinning!

The pace of this office was so different! What was I thinking? What if this dentist wanted to know my decision today? I wasn't sure what I would say to her. I needed time to think and make sure this was the right step for me. Thankfully, she sensed my confusion. She told me to go home and talk to my husband, saying that we could talk in a couple of days. That was just what I needed to sort things out. After much discussion and soul-searching, I called and accepted the new position.

Now, how would I tell my employer of 13 years that I was leaving? I gave my notice the next week. He did not seem shocked; he had sensed my unhappiness. I suppose you learn to read a person pretty well after all those years together!

My last day was filled with goodbyes and tears. It was difficult to say goodbye to people who had been a big part of my life for so long. I was sad to leave, but knew I had to move on.

It has taken me a full year to feel like I have my feet on the ground and to find my stride. There were times that I questioned my decision and longed for a day or two with my brain on autopilot again! However, the excitement and new opportunities have far outweighed those feelings. I am now a valued team member and am respected for my knowledge and experience.

Last year, I traveled to another part of my state to participate in a hands-on course to learn to use a manually tuned ultrasonic scaler and ultra-thin ultrasonic inserts. My previous criteria for continuing education courses had always been how close they were to my home! Now I take courses for their content, not the location. My doctor encourages me to explore the latest ideas and learn new techniques. In the past year, I have accumulated more continuing education hours than I ever have in any 12-month period since I began my career!

The business side of dental hygiene was not part of the curriculum when I was in dental hygiene school, but it is now very important to me. I never knew what an average day of hygiene was expected to produce in terms of dollars, much less how to go about figuring it out. Now I understand the importance of daily, weekly, and monthly production numbers.

Yes, we are here to serve and educate our patients, but a sound business environment is critical for an office to function well. We are not entirely focused on the "numbers," but I am encouraged to know my contribution to the overall health of the practice, and I am rewarded for it.

This year I made another change for myself and my career longevity. I decided to invest in myself and began purchasing my own equipment. I had no idea that there were manufacturers who made products specifically designed for what hygienists do.

I now own and use an ergonomically designed chair. My back and shoulder pain, which I had experienced for many years, is now gone. High-quality magnification loupes were next on my list of personal investments. My new doctor decided that magnification loupes were necessary for both of us. She wanted both of us to be able to offer optimum patient care. I wholeheartedly agree. Not only can I see amazing detail in the mouth, I can also sit up straight! That was something I had not done in years.

Finally, I am no longer an apathetic member of my profession. I have joined the ADHA. That was something I didn't bother to do for the first 13 years of my career. I regret not taking the time and expense to add my voice to the official roster of dental hygienists in the United States. I have also discovered how damaging isolation from others in my profession can be.

I now actively read and participate in an online exchange of dental hygienists from RDH@Yahoogroups. com. It has been life-giving professionally to "meet" hygienists from all over the world online. As a result of this networking, I have become friends with hygienists whom I probably would have never have come in contact with. They have mentored me through this time of change and continue to encourage me.

One of the most difficult parts of my decision to change employers was leaving behind all of the patients who had become my friends through the years. After all, these were the patients who had seen me through marriage and the pregnancies and births of two children. These were the patients I had visited with about their vacations, children, and grandchildren. I have, however, made many new friends in the past year. I have discovered that there are great patients at every office; you just have to be willing to get to know them.

I do not regret staying for so long at my first job. I learned a lot and met many great people who touched my life. It was a very family-friendly environment that was wonderful during the birth and infancy of my children.

It wasn't wasted time at all. I just see it as an experience I needed in my life to get to where I am today. Yes, during the decision-making process, I asked myself many questions. What if I take another position and hate it? What if I am sorry for changing jobs? What then? I finally found the answer that worked for me: I could not stay stagnant any longer. If my new position did not work out, then I would move on to find a position that did. Staying and remaining in the same place was scarier than trying something new and possibly failing.

Who knows what the future holds for me? There are so many topics that I would like to know more about and so many areas of dental hygiene that I need to take time to explore.

I have decided I will go back to school for my bachelor's degree at some point in the future. I am ready to move to the next level in the areas that an associate's degree cannot provide and look forward to continuing my formal education with excitement. I now know that the challenges and opportunities are in my future will not be opportunities that I might have missed because of the fear of leaving behind something comfortable.

Cappy C. Snider, RDH, graduated from Tarrant County College in 1987. She has practiced continually for the past 15 years. Snider currently practices clinical dental hygiene with Dr. Brooke Porter of Azle Dental Care in Azle, Texas. She may be reached by email at [email protected].