Dana L. Walsh
In the April 1996 issue, we asked hygienists who returned to dental hygiene after an extended leave of absence to reflect on the experience. In their answers below, the readers responded to RDH`s questions about any difficulties they experienced in leaving dental hygiene, what prompted them to return to the profession, did they have any "regrets," and advice they would give a colleague contemplating a return.
-"On August 12, 1986, my only child was born and, that same day, my husband was diagnosed with acute lymphatic leukemia (ALL). For three years and nine months, it was hospitals, chemotherapy, blood transfusions, bone marrow transplants, and then a funeral. Also during this time, my oldest sister was kidnapped, raped, and later died. One year later, I remarried and moved. It had been almost six years since I had practiced dental hygiene. Now gloves, masks, sterilizing procedures - everything had changed so much.
"A dentist in my new community called me to see if I could work part-time. Dealing with the death of my husband, the selling of his business and my home, remarrying, and moving, plus a young child, I was having anxiety attacks. I really didn`t know if I could handle small, tedious instrumentation. My boss let me take it really slow at first. Before the end of my first day, I felt so much better. I`ve been there for four years now.
"Returning to work helped me adjust to my new home. I have always loved my job and my patients! To anyone thinking of returning to practice, do it! It`s like riding a bike. Once you learn how, you never forget."
-"I took a leave of absence from dental hygiene from October 1973 until October 1984. I wanted to be home with my children when they were small, and we had moved to a state where I didn`t have a hygiene license. I resumed my career, as planned, when my three sons were all in school. We had moved again, and though I had five hygiene licenses, I wasn`t licensed where we were living.
"I was uncomfortable returning to active practice, though I had taken a course in local anesthetics and read dental journals regularly. The greatest changes I noticed were pit and fissure sealants and more diligent full-mouth perio charting to monitor patient`s perio pockets. I worked 31/2 years as an expanded-duties dental assistant before taking the state hygiene board.
"I have no regrets about leaving or returning to the workforce. I have worked 20 to 25 hours a week since returning, and the reduced hours has allowed me time to enjoy a variety of activities. My advice: Keep your licenses current in any state where you might someday wish to live and practice."
-"I have been off work [for one year] after having a second child. I had no problems leaving work, but I am having a lot of problems with the thought of returning. I really have grown to dislike my job. I am going back for the extra income. I regret that I have to leave my children to come back. I have grown to dislike my profession because of the fact that no one offers many benefits like retirement or insurance. I find that most doctors want you to act as if you are working for a big company but don`t offer any benefits."
-"My leave of absence lasted seven years. I left dental hygiene after 10 years of practice because I was bored. I had the opportunity to work full-time at a newspaper, and I jumped at it. My older sister, also a hygienist, was horrified at the thought I`d leave a secure job for which I`d trained. But, for me, it was the easiest decision in the world. Although I liked my boss, my co-workers, and my patients, I said goodbye and walked out without a moment`s regret. The only qualm I had was wasting the money my parents spent to send me to dental hygiene school. But I felt better when my mother said, `I knew you wouldn`t clean teeth all your life.`
"My job at the newspaper was intense, difficult, and very stressful. I loved it, but, after seven years, I decided I could not handle office politics any longer. One day I went home and asked my husband what he`d think if I went back to dental hygiene. We decided it would be tough to lose the job benefits at the newspaper, but my sanity was more important.
"Because I had let my license lapse (big mistake), there was a lot of paperwork to go through. It took three months and cost over $500. There were many long-distance phone calls; mailing expenses; two trips to Columbus [Ohio], a three hour drive; a trip back to my college, an hour-and-half drive; a hepatitis vaccine which cost $150; and 12 hours of continuing education which cost about $200.
"I found a job with no trouble at all. I saw an ad, answered it, was interviewed and hired. It was in the summertime, and he promised me 31 hours a week at $14 an hour (this was in 1991). It sounded wonderful, and it was until wintertime, when the 31 hours shrunk to 20, then 15, then four. I left the following spring, and, after a few minor adjustments, am working 16 hours a week in one office and eight in another. I would still like to find one 32-hour a week job with benefits, but it`s hard in a rural area.
"To get ready for practice again, I borrowed my sister`s operatory for an afternoon. I cleaned her teeth and my husband`s and took X-rays of both. She coached me through applying a sealant to one of his teeth. She explained all the differences in infection control and reviewed things like how to use an autoclave and how to develop X-rays. Besides the 12 hours of continuing edcuation (one course on radiography and one on periodontology), my new boss sent me to a hands-on perio course that was extremely helpful.
"As I said, I had no regrets about leaving the first time. As for returning, the jury is still out, even after five years. I find it a little more interesting now - that might be just because I`m older and more experienced. But if I had the whole thing to do over again, I wouldn`t choose hygiene as a career. My sister did the right thing. She likes the health field, she likes the flexibility of part-time work, and she`s a people person. I`m different, and I shouldn`t have followed her lead just because it was easy. I stay in hygiene now because it`s still easy.
"A person thinking of returning to hygiene should do two things. One, spend some time with a working hygienist in her operatory, talking and asking questions and observing. Draft some understanding family members for practice cleanings and X-rays.
"Two, take a hands-on course. They`re expensive and hard to find, but one class like that is worth a 100 hours of listening to lectures. It gave me the confidence I needed to put my hands in a patient`s mouth again."
-"I was the only RDH in a two-man practice for ten years. I had made more friends than patients. I was torn between leaving everyone and real total burnout. I felt I could not motivate my patients if I was no longer motivated.
"I left the field for eight years. I went from hygiene to real estate. Talk about a full-time job! Semi-retirement looked real good, so after eight years I decided to go back to hygiene part-time. I had kept my license active.
"I truly love dental hygiene and am now working for a dentist I worked with 20 years ago. The pay is great (with my experience). My hours are perfect, and, being a new grandmother, it`s a great job. I would advise any colleague to go back if it fits your lifestyle."
New Jersey hygienist
-"I had practiced for years in a single office and had become very close to my employer, fellow employees, and many of the patients there prior to taking two leaves of absence - the first for one year and the second for five years. I had three children and chose to be at home full-time to raise them.
"The difficulties I experienced had to do with missing hygiene and the interaction with people. I came to realize the positive impact my career had on my identity and self-image.
"I was divorced five years ago and resumed my career out of financial necessity. I returned part-time to my original position, but had to add days in other offices, substituting the first year, to make ends meet. Practicing in several new offices at the same time was at many times a challenge, but it served to hone my technical and interpersonal skills. I have learned a great deal.
"I have no regrets whatsoever about returning to hygiene. I truly enjoy my career, and it has been very good to me financially.
"Advice I would give to my peers - work on yourself. Get into optimal physical shape. I have experienced several bouts with severe neck and back pain and have since remedied this with weight training and stretching regimens. I would also suggest that returnees make open-mindedness and adaptability high priorities when balancing family responsibilities with new career challenges and changes."
-"I took a long leave of absence for 16 years to raise a family. In the late 1950s that was an easy choice as women were not so career oriented. I had worked for five years as a hygienist, enjoyed it thoroughly, and knew that at some time I would go back to work. I kept my licensed renewed for that purpose.
"A change of lifestyle, namely a divorce, prompted me to return to work. I looked around for some sort of refresher course to help me out but could not find anything. I finally called a local teaching hospital and volunteered with the express stipulation that I be placed in the dental clinic. They were happy to comply, so I put on my `candy striper` outfit and spent about two months getting myself familiar with terms and procedures. After I found employment with a former employee, I did register for some courses at a local college and really got back up to speed.
"Hygiene has always been a wonderful profession, and I have thoroughly enjoyed being a part of it. After several years in a new marriage, I left the profession again to work with my husband in the computer field. We eventually moved to another state, and I returned to hygiene once again. I was very fortunate to have gotten reciprocity which made returning very easy.
"Hygiene is a fabulous part-time profession for me now. I work only one day a week because I enjoy it. I would certainly encourage anyone who has been away to return if only part-time. It is a most rewarding profession to be a part of."
-"11 years [leave of absence]. I gave up my dental hygiene career to become a flight attendant. I really had no difficulty leaving the dental hygiene profession, because I was more excited about a career that allowed me to travel.
"I met my future husband and moved to a small town. I then went part-time with the airline and was offered a job with one of the local dentists. I was ready to resume my career as a hygienist part-time.
"I have no regrets either way. I love being back in my profession as a hygienist and would highly recommend it to anyone considering returning."
-"I took a leave of absence from the practice of dental hygiene for 14 years. I had no difficulties in deciding to leave - I always thought of it as `put on leave` to have a family. I went back to work in 1990 after my divorce. The hygienist now makes more money $24 to $25 per hour as compared to $40 per day in 1974. The hygienist is also a much more respected member of the dental team now.
"I called my dental hygiene instructor and explained my fear of going back to work. I had kept my license in good standing and had taken CPR each year, but I had not been in the dental office except as a patient for 14 years. My instructor put me at ease instantly. She said that my skills would come back to me "just like riding a bicycle." She invited me to join a continuing education class on new instruments at the school and work on typodonts - what luck!
"She also suggested I get work through a temporary agency, explaining to them to place me in slow offices only at first. Within a few months, I decided to accept a full-time position in a pediatric office, thinking that working with children would be easier. But the pace was wild. I stayed a little over a year, taking more continuing education classes in Houston.
"I then moved to an adult general practice, which later sold after my doctor retired from general dentistry to specialize in TMJ. I now work five days a week in a very progressive general dentistry practice in which we employ a very strong soft tissue management program.
"These last six years have seen me move from very afraid and unsure of myself (not only in my profession, but also after coming out of an abusive marriage and a bitter, horrible divorce) to a very confident, very proud, and happy member of the dental team.
"I`m grateful everyday to be able to go to work - help people, be needed and respected by my peers, and be able to pay my bills by myself for my family."
Dana Walsh rediscovered her hygiene skills after 14 years in order to "pay my bills" for family - (from left) Lindsey, Lauren, and Mary Erin.