From caterpillars to Butterflies

Caterpillars can be unappealing, but Kristen Simmons, BSDH, the 2006 Philips Oral Healthcare/RDH magazine Mentor of the Year, appreciates them.

Th 208354
Th 208354
Cara Kao-Young (left) with Kristen Simmons
Click here to enlarge image

Caterpillars can be unappealing, but Kristen Simmons, BSDH, the 2006 Philips Oral Healthcare/RDH magazine Mentor of the Year, appreciates them.

“A caterpillar’s just a bug, but with energy and time it can develop into something else. The caterpillar probably doesn’t know it’s going to become a butterfly. It has no choice, really, it just comes out that way.

“As hygienists, we have a choice. We can all be butterflies. My role is to show my fellow hygienists that choice, and help them see the butterfly that’s there.”

Simmons, who began her hygiene career with an associate’s degree from Parkland Community College in Champaign, Ill., in 1984, has metamorphosed into the most useful of butterflies. She is director of dental hygiene for the Willamette Dental Group in Portland, Ore., a job that puts her in a unique position to influence other dental hygienists.

“Willamette is a large group dental practice,” she explains, “with about 150 hygienists in 62 offices in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. My role is to be a resource for them, and to help them develop personal mastery. I try to balance the profession of dental hygiene and the cost management side of the practice while demanding superior patient care. With the help of lead dental hygienists in each office, I design performance goals and continuing education, and encourage commitment to the profession we serve. I help develop clinical practice guidelines, and I make professional development plans to increase the competency of our hygienists. I also represent Willamette dental hygiene interests on a state and national level.”

Simmons believes in building leaders within her company. “As hygienists at Willamette Dental, we have the ability to embrace the six roles of the profession: public health worker, educator, researcher, administrator/manager, advocate, and clinician. As dental hygienists we are leaders - beautiful butterflies. My job is to show hygienists the crack in the cocoon, so they can set themselves free.”

Simmons’ other duties include developing curricula and process for hygiene recruitment and training, as well as developing guidelines that allow Willamette hygienists to improve access to oral health care.

“We believe we can improve the public’s oral health by utilizing hygienists to their full scope,” she says.

To that end, says Simmons, the company is innovative and receptive to the health-care crisis in America. One of Willamette’s hygienists uses portable equipment to go into nursing homes and work with Alzheimer’s patients. Others perform direct services for Head Start, Early Head Start, and in school districts.

With Limited Access Permits (LAP) amended to their licenses, Oregon hygienists who work for Willamette can prescribe fluoride, fluoride varnish, and antimicrobial solutions or agents. Willamette hygienists in Washington may be dental hygiene practitioners, and in Idaho, they may have an extended access permit.

A complicated start

Before she began working for Willamette, Simmons had a complicated start to her hygiene career. After she earned an associate’s degree in her home state of Illinois, Simmons and her husband, David, moved to Katy, Texas, because of his job in food distribution. Click here to view "Comments from the Nominating Hygienist"

“I took the clinical and written board exams again, and passed them both. David’s job then brought us to Oregon, and I was faced with taking both boards a third time. This time, I had to take one exam twice when I didn’t pass.”

She worked in general practice at first, then specialized in periodontics.

“I always said I wanted my patients to feel they’ve had the best experience possible. I want us to matter to them.”

Simmons credits one of her first mentors, former American Dental Hygienists’ Association president Karla Girts, with inspiring her to continue her education.

“She helped me regain the desire and enthusiasm to go back and get my bachelor’s degree - to move beyond the chair into something more, something wonderful, something beautiful.”

In Eastern Washington University’s dental hygiene baccalaureate program, Simmons said she was “challenged to think outside the clinical chair. We had remarkable teachers who helped us see the possibilities of helping large populations and sharing our knowledge with a greater audience. The instructors inspired me to see that the values of general health and oral health are one and the same.”

She began working for Willamette Dental Group 16 years ago as a hygienist. Her employer, business owner Dr. Eugene Skourtes, said he’d like to use her talents in the entire company - not just at one location - so she moved into management.

“I do very little clinical now, but I try to stay involved. I use my LAP to screen and treat children up to three years old at Early Head Start. My school colleague, Jan Polson, and I started the program more than five years ago as part of our degree completion program. Since that time we have reduced the decay rate for those children by about 70 percent.”

Simmons credits Skourtes, as well as April Kniess, the company’s executive vice president of dental operations, and Gary Allen, her immediate supervisor, with being her most important mentors today.

“They all have the same vision - to increase access to care and design ways to keep oral health care affordable,” she said.

As part of her job, and from personal commitment, Simmons is very involved in the dental hygiene community.

“I was honored to serve on the 2005 ADHA Council on Regulation and Practice, and I was one of the recipients of the Rosie Wall Community Outreach Award from the ADHA Institute for Oral Health for the Early Head Start program in 2003. Currently, I am president of the Oregon Dental Hygienists’ Association, a committee member of the American Academy of Dental Hygiene, and a participant on Oregon’s statewide Oral Advisory Board.”

She also sits on an advisory board at Pacific University in Hillsboro, Ore., which has one of two new dental hygiene programs in the state.

“I’m very excited about that. I think the vision of the program director and her insistence on collaboration with community needs to improve oral health is thrilling. Pacific University will also design higher education for dental hygienists by offering a master’s program. After my ODHA presidency, my next goal is to be a student again, to earn my master’s degree, and I would like to do that at Pacific.”

On the personal side

Simmons and her husband have two daughters, Kylie, 14, who is a snowboard athlete, and Kasey, 11, who is working on her black belt in Tae Kwon Do.

“As a family, we love bicycle riding and tent camping. We’re still in love with the beauty of Oregon; we can’t get enough of it. I just love being with my kids, seeing them grow and being able to be a part of it. That’s a good reason to stay fit, so I can run with them and grow with them.”

Her job, with the travel it sometimes entails, can be hard on the family, but Simmons believes her children understand.

“I think they support me and know that their mom is working for a lot of people who can’t afford health care. They’re in school with other kids who don’t have the resources to get their teeth fixed, who get ridiculed. Some of them cover their mouths when they speak, or do not smile.

“When my children have friends spend the night, I learn that some of them haven’t had a toothbrush in a long time. As a parent and a dental hygienist, I believe these are all our children, and dental disease is preventable. My children are proud to see me making a contribution to help those in need, and I think they will ‘pay it forward.’ When they see that Mom has a dream, they, too, have their own dreams. I feel this helps them aspire to achieve their own goals.”

Not only with her children, but with her staff, fellow students, and fellow dental hygienists, Simmons exemplifies the best qualities of a mentor.

As she puts it, everyone starts out as a caterpillar. Her mission is to encourage them to crack that cocoon and become butterflies.


Kristen Simmons:
2006 Philips Oral Healthcare/RDH
Mentor of the Year

“A caterpillar’s just a bug, but with energy and time it can develop into something else. The caterpillar probably doesn’t know it’s going to become a butterfly. It has no choice, really, it just comes out that way. As hygienists, we have a choice. We can all bebutterflies. My role is to show my fellow hygienists that choice, and help them see the butterfly that’s there.”


Philips Oral Healthcare and RDH magazine will host an award ceremony for Kristen Simmons during the ADHA annual session. The ceremony is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., June 24, in the Fantasia Ballroom P-Q at Disney’s Contemporary Resort in Orlando. For more information about the ADHA conference, go to www.ADHA.org.

More in Personal Wellness