by Cathy White, RDH, BS
Janice Clausen-Thompson has worked for 37 years in the same practice to make patients feel welcome and comfortable, just like that mythical bar called Cheers.
Dentistry is enormously stressful for many patients. But a familiar and smiling hygienist whom a patient has seen many times over the years can be reassuring and do a lot to alleviate stress. The dental practice where Janice Clausen-Thompson has worked full-time for the last 37 years strives to make patients feel welcome and comfortable, a place, like the mythical bar Cheers, “where everybody knows your name.” Providing more than just dental care and oral health information, for almost four decades Thompson has shared life’s defining moments with her patients - from births, graduations, and marriages to divorce, illness, and death.
“I’ve seen some of my patients more than 60 times, and it means a lot to us to feel almost like family,” Thompson said. “Every time I see a patient I find something in his or her life I can relate to, and I make brief notes in the chart about an upcoming trip or impending birth. When I mention the event at the next appointment, my patient is impressed and gratified that someone cares enough to remember significant moments in his or her life. It’s also been a wonderful experience to see so many of my patients grow to adulthood and bring their children or grandchildren to our practice. In addition, I have the unique opportunity to see how orthodontic results look 10 or 20 or 30 years after I helped a child work on home care during treatment.”
First job an eye-opener
Thompson graduated from the School of Dental Hygiene at the University of Iowa in 1965. Her first job was in the Dental Clinic at Denver General Hospital. It was a real eye-opener for a brand-new hygienist to work on mostly low-income patients with severe dental problems, and sometimes even prisoners who were brought in and handcuffed to her chair. She also taught dental health education in some Denver schools.
In 1969, Thompson moved to Utah for a year because of her husband’s work. She worked at the VA Hospital Dental Clinic, where many of her patients were young soldiers just back from Vietnam. She also taught dental hygiene students doing their internship at the hospital. In 1970, Thompson returned to Denver and joined the practice of brothers Drs. Lester and Jack Wasinger. Dr. Lester retired in 1996 and his half of the practice was taken over by Dr. Sylvia Talavera. While Dr. Jack is now pondering retirement, Thompson remains a constant in the practice - that familiar face who helps patients feel at ease.
Thompson has been active in local hygiene associations over the years, serving as president of the Metropolitan Denver Dental Hygiene Association in 1975 and president of the Colorado Dental Hygiene Association in 1978 and 1979. She served as a delegate to the American Dental Hygiene Association from District 10. With her friend and colleague Mary Fitch, Thompson was instrumental in the passage of a law that allows Colorado hygienists to practice independently without the direct supervision of a dentist. It was initially a very polarizing issue, with dentists and hygienists divided in their opinions. Thompson and Fitch addressed the state legislature, and the CDHA hired a lobbyist to help with passage of the bill. The goal was not only to provide an important career option to hygienists, but also to bring care to more patients in facilities without dentists, such as nursing homes, and to patients in underserved rural areas. Interestingly, once the option of independent practice became a reality, it never became the divisive issue its opponents predicted.
Thompson has stayed at the same practice so long for several reasons. She enjoys seeing the same patients and thinks of them as hers as well as the doctors’. Her employers have always treated her as a valued and appreciated professional equal.
“Certainly as hygienists we earn a good living, but I like to be appreciated and feel that gratitude and appreciation can be more important than money,” she said. “Also in our practice, family comes first, so if one of us has a child’s program or doctor’s appointment, we can schedule around it.”
Thompson has career-counseled several patients who have gone on to become hygienists.
“So many patients have been so generous with their thanks and expressed their gratitude to me for what I’ve done for them through the years,” she continued. “I’ve even had terminally ill patients call shortly before their death to thank me for the care I gave them. I always try to send a card or personal note to patients or their families if someone is ill or dying. When my own daughter passed away, I received countless cards and calls from my patients. Dental hygiene has given me so much. I think it’s important to be grateful for what we receive, and I enjoy giving back in every way I can.
“Someone once told me that if you hate to get up and go to work in the morning, you’d better get another job,” Thompson said. “I always have a positive attitude and look forward to going to work every day. I think we can learn a lot from listening carefully to what our patients have to say, and I always treat people the way I would like to be treated, both professionally and personally. Ours may be a big-city practice, but we like to think we have a small-town feel.”
Dinner with Friends
In addition to her love of dental hygiene, Thompson has a lifelong love of cooking. In 1990, she was looking for something that would provide her daughter Stephanie and son Trevor with an extra job to earn money for college. She came up with “Dinner With Friends,” a catering business that specializes in small, intimate parties. Her kids got to work on the weekends while she indulged her love of entertaining.
With dental hygiene as her full-time career, Thompson must carefully fit catering into evenings and weekends. Because of time constraints, she schedules no more than three events per month. She also makes beautiful and mouthwatering wedding and birthday cakes. Planning, preparation, and execution are complex and time-consuming, but she considers the work a creative outlet and loves to see her clients have a wonderful time at a function she produced just for them. She attends food shows and is a voracious reader, especially of cookbooks and food magazines.
“To cater literally means to do what people like, and it’s fun to create an event and menu for someone,” Thompson said. “I think that my years of dealing with the public in a dental practice are a definite plus when it comes to catering. I don’t advertise and all of my business is from referrals, many from patients. I turn away many more requests than I am able to accept.”
A day with Grandma
In 2003, Thompson went through a life-changing experience when she accompanied her daughter and son-in-law, Stephanie and Brady Schmidt, to China to pick up nine-month-old Madelyn. Grandmother and granddaughter share a very special bond that began the moment they laid eyes on each other. The petite girl is now a five-year-old whirlwind who rushes from school to gymnastics to Chinese class and delights in everyone around her.
When illness claimed the life of her daughter, Thompson knew it was her responsibility to step in and be the major female influence in Madelyn’s life. As heartbreaking as the loss of her daughter is, Thompson knows that without Stephanie there would be no Madelyn, who, like all grandchildren, brings pure joy to those around her. Son Trevor Clausen and his wife Karin added to that joy with their daughter Chase, now 2. Both girls think the most fun place in the world is with Grandma.
While most people would be exhausted just reading Thompson’s jam-packed hygiene schedule, catering, and grandma duties, she thrives on it all and says she is much too busy to think about retirement. After all, her 88-year-old mother, Helen Downey, is still working at the nursing home in Thompson’s hometown of Edgewood, Iowa.
Thompson’s colleagues say the practice wouldn’t be the same without her. They describe her as a great and supportive friend as well as a helpful and thoughtful co-worker who never seems to have a bad day. Patients love her “velvet” touch and appreciate her kindness. All agree that Thompson brings a great sense of humor and positive attitude with her wherever she goes, as well as delicious goodies crafted with skill and love.
People like to go where everybody knows their names. Thompson, in her modest way, probably doesn’t realize that her name is known by so many patients, colleagues, friends, and family members who love, respect, and admire her.
Cathy White, RDH, BS, has had the privilege of calling Janice Thompson a friend for more than 37 years. White has worked in private practice and in sales and management in the dental manufacturing industry. She resides in Montrose, Colo., where she works as a freelance writer.