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Passing the test of time

Feb. 1, 2012
At the 2011 RDH Under One Roof meeting in Chicago, I was approached by three smiling hygienists from Georgia.

Dianne Glasscoe Watterson with Kathy Schie, Abby Helton, and Cynthia Heckman

Friendship and longevity in the lives of three hygienists

Dianne Glasscoe Watterson, RDH, BS, MBA

At the 2011 RDH Under One Roof meeting in Chicago, I was approached by three smiling hygienists from Georgia. They introduced themselves as Cynthia Heckman, Kathy Schie, and Abby Helton. They complimented me on my seminar and told me that they always read my columns in RDH magazine. Then they shared something quite amazing with me. These three have worked together in the same office for more than 25 years! That kind of longevity is a rarity today. In talking with them, I discovered the reasons for their amazing longevity and workplace happiness together.

Why did you choose a career in dental hygiene?

Cynthia: My dental hygienist encouraged me. She worked part time, made good money, and didn’t have to take her work home with her.

Kathy: The summer before my junior year in high school, the dentist from next door called to see if I would come into his office to help out since his assistant quit without notice. My mother and I went to JC Penney to get a white uniform (double knit). By that afternoon I started working, with on-the-job training (it was 1971). I changed my dream from nursing to dental hygiene that summer, and I continued to work for the dentist on Saturdays and summers until I entered college.

Abby: Originally, I wanted to be a nurse. But since I didn’t like the sight of blood, dental hygiene seemed a better choice. Little did I know! My childhood dentist and hygienist were very encouraging to me when I mentioned my interest in dental hygiene.

Given that you have worked in the same office at least 25 years, what makes this practice special?

Cynthia: Since my three-hour interview in December 1985 until today I’ve been treated as a professional, valued and respected. I actually took a cut in salary to start work there; I just had a very positive feeling about the office and the doctors.

In 1986, the practice was the young practice of Drs. Gary Saban and Larry Saltzman. The two doctors had only been practicing for about two years when I started working there. It was Dr. Saban’s third career! He was 41 when he opened his practice. Dr. Saban has since retired, but he and Dr. Saltzman set the tone for the office with regard to the hygienist being a “co-therapist” in the practice, not the “cleaning lady.”

Kathy: I started working at my current office with Drs. Saban and Saltzman on Feb. 10, 1984. Dr. Saban has since retired and Dr. Silverman is now with the practice. From the start, I could tell this was a special practice. I was respected as a professional, and the doctors valued my position as a dental hygienist. On the very first day, I was asked for a list of the instruments and supplies I needed, and they were ordered.

Through the years they often asked our opinions, and they really listen. Each hygienist has her own operatory that is fully stocked and equipped. Our uniforms, loupes, and headlights are all supplied. Instruments and other supplies are ordered without question as we have need of them. At the end of each day, there is always a “thank you for a good day” and often a hug. I feel I work very hard and am compensated well. The doctors take care of all expenses for CE classes, traveling, and lodging, and they give us spending money.

Abby: We are all like a big happy family. Everyone is so supportive of each other. There are no slackers, and everyone just jumps in and does what needs to be done without being asked. I have met and worked with doctors who talk about the staff members taking care of each other first so that we can all take better care of our patients. Our doctors live that philosophy.

Tell me how you feel about your coworkers that you have worked with all these years.

Cynthia: We are more than good friends — we’re like family. We love and respect each other. We have been through so much together — births of children and grandchildren, deaths of parents and children, marriages, divorces, sickness of family members, all of the things life throws at you. We share our joys and sad times. We have forged lasting relationships. We all have different personalities that work well together in our practice. I feel privileged to have worked with Abby and Kathy all these years.

Kathy: I love Abby and Cynthia. We are good friends, and I think we know one another very well. We have celebrated life together, and we have cried together. We enjoy traveling together and love our Under One Roof meetings. I have learned so much from both of them.

Abby: I consider Kathy and Cynthia to be two of my closest, dearest friends. We’ve spent many hours laughing, crying, and celebrating with one another over the years. When Cynthia’s oldest son, who lives in New Zealand, found out he was going to be a daddy, we rejoiced. But Cynthia was sad that she was so far away and unable to share in the baby showers. So Kathy and I threw her a “grandma” shower where she Skyped with the parents-to-be as she opened the gifts. We have pictures of her “showing” gifts to a laptop!

With that many years in one practice, what keeps you inspired and motivated? How have you avoided burnout?

Cynthia: I’m inspired (and sometimes frustrated) by being constantly challenged and required to learn new things. We are a paperless office now, and boy, was that fun! I still miss my paper charts, but we do love it now. My patients inspire me each day with their commitment to their good dental health and their confidence in me and our practice. I don’t think you can work at a job for 25 years and not experience a bout of burnout now and again. I have found that it’s all about my attitude and commitment to my patients and practice that brings me back to the realization of what a great place I have found. Drs. Saltzman and Silverman are wonderful dentists; they do some of the best dentistry in Atlanta. They treat their employees and patients with gratitude and respect. They treat us on our birthdays with gifts and lunch for everyone, pay for continuing education, and take us on trips every few years just for fun! We all look for times to celebrate at the office.

Kathy: I have been in this office for more than 27 years. I feel like every 50 minutes I get to visit with a different friend, while helping him or her maintain optimal dental health. I enjoy each and every patient, old and new. After all these years, many of the children I saw when they were little are now bringing their own children in to see me. The years have gone by so fast. It is so interesting watching them grow, and before you know it, they become parents. There is no time to get burned out in this practice, as there is always something new. Our doctors are very generous and have treated us to many trips throughout the years. We have been to Santa Monica, Boston, Chicago, Disney World, and to Florida beaches many times ... all expenses paid. They send us to UOR every year.

Abby: An office full of people who genuinely care about each other and incredible patients make it easy. The entire staff recognizes that each team member plays an integral part in making the practice a success. There is mutual support and respect among all staff members. Don’t get me wrong; with nine women working together, we’ve had the occasional spat. But like a loving family, we realize that we’d rather be with each other, so we get over things pretty quickly.

In your opinion what is the key to your longevity in one practice, and what does it feel like to have such long relationships with patients?

Cynthia: As mentioned previously, being respected, valued, fairly compensated, and having flexibility with my schedule have been the key reasons I stayed put for almost 26 years. My relationships with my patients are what get me up in the morning. I love seeing people I have known and worked with for so long, and I love meeting and starting relationships with the new patients. I see three generations of patients now, and it amazes me that the kids are getting so old and yet I haven’t aged one bit! My relationships with my coworkers are wonderful but not always perfect. But what relationship is? We work out our problems with love and honesty. I work with two doctors, four assistants, three administrative personnel, two other hygienists, and we are like a big family. Most of my co-workers have more than 10 years in the practice. Most days, our practice works like a well-oiled machine.

Kathy: I think the key to the longevity is finding the right practice and being able to bend. Like a marriage, you have to work at making it work. I do understand from peers that it is hard to find the right practice; maybe I am just lucky. I have developed a bond with many of the long-time patients, which makes them feel like family. I see them every three or six months, and it is fun visiting with them, catching up with their news and sharing mine with them. Many patients bring pictures of vacations, weddings, new babies, etc. These relationships are fun and exciting! The patients that are from the early years in the practice enjoy talking about the old times and how so much has changed.

Abby: There have been times in my career that I’ve thought about doing something else, but when I would think about not seeing this patient or that one, I realized that those relationships are more important to me than making a change.

What is your most memorable patient experience?

Cynthia: One of my early patients was a lady named Clyde who had periodontal disease. We proceeded with SRP and three-month recare appointments. She was a model patient; she established excellent home care and never missed an appointment. We became friends — she was a hygienist’s dream patient. Clyde’s health started to decline. and she developed macular degeneration. She was going blind and soon was not able to drive. Not having anyone to help her get to her appointments, I picked up Clyde and brought her to the office for care on my day off. She had come so far, and I didn’t want her to slip back into old habits. For several years, I picked up Clyde, brought her to the office for care, and took her home again. We became better friends, enjoying our time together sharing stories of our families and our lives. At the time of her death, Clyde still had her teeth! I think of her often and miss her spirit!

Kathy: My favorite funny experience was many years ago. A mother brought her son (age 4) in for his six-month appointment. She was concerned about the black stain on his front teeth. It polished off easily. Two weeks later she brought him back because the black stain had “grown” back. When he got in my chair, I questioned him about the black marks on his teeth. I asked him if he knew how the black marks appeared on his teeth, and to my surprise he said, yes. He began to dig into his pocket and pulled out a small car (Hot Wheels) and raced it across his front teeth. He was laying rubber on his teeth!

Abby: One memorable patient was a little girl who was very fearful because of being traumatized at another dental office. I worked hard at gaining her trust, and we bonded so well that after the first appointment they wrote “Abby only” in her chart. One day a year or so later, I went out to the reception room to call the little girl back for her appointment. She looked at me with wide, tearful eyes and backed away when I called her. I had gotten my long hair cut quite short, and she didn’t recognize me! Realizing what was happening, I knelt down across the room from her and told her I’d gotten my hair cut and to listen to my voice. She realized it was me after all and came running into my arms.

A common thread

As I interviewed these three exceptional dental hygienists, their dedication to each other and to their patients came through as a recurring theme. That kind of rich loyalty happens as a result of a practice atmosphere that nurtures caring and professional growth.

Who is responsible for creating that kind of healthy practice atmosphere? Clearly, it is a group effort, but the responsibility rests with the doctors. It was refreshing to hear of a practice where ...

1. Continual learning is promoted by frequently attending courses together.
2. Supplies and instruments are provided without debate.
3. Doctors understand the importance of hygienists having enhanced ability to visualize the oral cavity by providing loupes and headlights.
4. Doctors express appreciation verbally on a regular basis.
5. All staff members pull together and are focused on the main thing, which is excellent patient care.

The owners understand that their most important asset is their staff group. They have taken the lead role in creating the optimal practice environment that promotes healthy relationships and workplace happiness. This practice has that wonderful “family feeling” that makes coming to work a pleasure.

Workplace harmony starts at the top with good leadership. When staff members are treated with respect, kindness, and caring, they express those same characteristics in the care of patients. The result is staff member longevity and close, bonded relationships with one another and patients.

Cynthia, Kathy, and Abby share these final thoughts: life is too short to spend your time, energy, and emotion in a negative environment. You must decide to take control of your destiny and believe that you are of great worth. The days of the prima donna hygienist are over. Enjoy your patients and coworkers, and find something fun and challenging that you enjoy outside the office.

Many thanks to my three favorite Georgia hygienists for a refreshing look into their amazing longevity together in the same practice. They are a beacon of hope for many who currently work in toxic work environments that there really are some great dental practices out there!

Dianne Glasscoe Watterson, RDH, BS, MBA, is a professional speaker, writer, and consultant to dental practices across the United States. Dianne’s new book, “The Consummate Dental Hygienist: Solutions for Challenging Workplace Issues,” is now available on her website. To contact her for speaking or consulting, call (301) 874-5240 or email [email protected]. Visit her website at

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