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Life after 35 years of dental hygiene

Feb. 1, 2007
It has been two years since I retired from teaching dental hygiene at Lane Community College in Eugene, Ore.
Kit, husband Michael, and granddaughter Emily on their sailboat last summer.
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by Kit Hopkinson, RDH

It has been two years since I retired from teaching dental hygiene at Lane Community College in Eugene, Ore. I was an educator for 28 years. As a profession, dental hygiene provided me with numerous opportunities and the gift of lifelong learning. I graduated in 1971 and immediately began work in private practice for five years, with some part-time teaching at the LCC Dental Clinic.

Kit and granddaughter Emily
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As the years progressed I found myself only teaching, with some summer fill-in clinical work. As the first-year dental hygiene clinical coordinator for 22 years, my sole responsibility was to prepare the first-year students for their first patients by the middle of February. Each year it felt a lot like giving birth ... teaching the “newbies” everything they needed to know before treating their first patients. Granted, it didn’t take nine months, but trust me, it felt like nine months! Even very bright and highly motivated students doubted their clinical abilities and wanted to “practice just a month or two longer!” For this short time the students were my children. I nurtured them and taught them to trust and believe they could be successful.

Baby Emily Shaw at 9 months.
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One great aspect of teaching for me was re-reading letters students had written about their dental hygiene goals and their strengths and weaknesses. They wrote the letters the first week of school. Some very capable people wrote these letters, but many of them had a fear of failure. By the end of the second year, about graduation time, I gave their letters back to them to read. It was wonderfully rewarding when the students realized they had taken the challenge, conquered their fears, and knew they could make a difference in their profession. I was proud of them and grateful to be part of their personal and professional growth.

Our renovated historic home built in 1870, Steilacoom, Wash.
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In the spring of 2004, I retired. My husband and I had come to Eugene as students in the late 1960s. We stayed when both of us found employment immediately after graduation. We raised our two children in Eugene, but as the years passed our priorities changed. Both of our children left Eugene when their professions took them north to Washington - one to Seattle and one to Tacoma. We had traveled the I-5 corridor for years because we had a sailboat moored at Seattle’s Elliott Bay. We were getting mighty tired of the six-hour drive and thought it would be nice to relocate close to the kids and the boat.

We fell in love with a small town on Puget Sound called Steilacoom, population 6,000. It was the first incorporated town in Washington. As luck would have it, an old 1870s, very neglected house was on the market. Bear in mind my husband saw us traveling, sailing, reading, and resting in our retirement, but I saw wonderful potential in this charming “vine cottage.” We made an offer, and it was ours! We just completed two years of continual restoration both inside and outside the house. My husband was very concerned about what I was going to do in retirement. Well, this is a project house, and that worry has been solved!

Ten months after we moved, our daughter and her husband had a baby girl who was born at 26 weeks. They were living with us at the time because they were building a new house. Our daughter had severe and rapid-onset pregnancy-induced hypertension. Her kidneys began to fail and her blood pressure was so dangerously high the doctors anticipated a seizure or stroke. Emily Michael (Grandpa’s first name) Shaw was born April 26, 2005, by Caesarean section and weighed one pound, 14 ounces. We began our journey of 85 days in NICU and our education about premature babies.

Kit and granddaughter Emily.
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Emily had the usual preemie problems: she needed a ventilator immediately and required heart surgery, but the most serious complication was the dreaded staph infection she contracted soon after birth. It took seven weeks of antibiotics to eliminate the infection. As hygienists, we know how important basic asepsis is, and I can tell you there were times my family had to hold me back from educating either a nurse or doctor about proper hand-washing!

Emily came home on oxygen, and within a month needed a nasal gastric feeding tube replaced as she was aspirating into her lungs. She had the feeding tube about five months and with it she thrived and gained weight. Emily began to pull the tube out, so the doctors decided it could be removed and she could eat thickened formula and baby food by bottle. She has adapted well to this. She recently had a feeding and swallowing evaluation from an otolaryngologist at Children’s Hospital in Seattle. He found that Emily’s left vocal cord is completely paralyzed. When she had her heart surgery (patent ductus arteriosus), the nerve was damaged. This occurs about 20 percent of the time. So she’ll never be a professional singer, but in the scheme of things, one nonfunctioning vocal cord is minor. Our daughter, a first-grade teacher, said, “Well, every teacher will want the ‘quiet one’ in his or her classroom.”

Kit in center front row at her retirement party with colleagues and former students.
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Emily is a miracle who has endured much in her short life, and we feel blessed to have her. Since she can’t go to daycare, her grandparents are caring for her.

For me, educating dental hygiene students has been replaced with taking care of my grandbaby and renovating my old house. After 35 years it was time for me to experience what life has to offer after dental hygiene. I look forward to whatever that may be and wish you all continued professional success and dental hygiene career longevity.

Kit Hopkinson, RDH, BA, taught at Lane Community College in Eugene, Ore., from 1976 to 2004. She is now retired and resides in Steilacoom, Wash. Kit can be contacted at [email protected].