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One year out: Dental hygienist reflects on what she learned during her first year in practice

Sept. 1, 2017
Datevig Tegeleci, RDH, reflects back on the start of her new career as a dental hygienist.

As former dental hygiene students, we all know the feelings we experienced when we found out we had passed the National Boards. “I did it! I made it! Now I’m going to go out into this great field and show everyone what I’ve learned! I’ll work at a great office, full-time, with professional colleagues who will appreciate the art of great periodontal therapy!”

Soon after graduating and getting married, I interviewed with an office I found online that was close to my home. I had a great working interview and was offered the job. For the first month or so I thought I had hit the career jackpot. I was hired to work at a technologically advanced, beautiful office four to five days a week. I was hard-working and excited to immerse myself into the field that I held in such high regard.

In a matter of days, I learned two new programs the office used, and I was eager to show off the hygienist I knew I was. I loved to see patients come in regularly, I enjoyed building relationships with them, and I knew that they enjoyed the services I provided for them as well. I meshed well with my fellow employees and dentists in the office, and felt lucky that I had found my forever dental home, which all seasoned hygienists speak about, so quickly after graduating.

Bubble of Perfection

Less than two months after starting at this “dream” office, I was looking for employment elsewhere. My hygiene bubble of perfection had popped. I quickly burned out physically, mentally, and emotionally. So much was being asked of me the during one-hour appointments. But I did not want to deviate from providing exceptional patient care, and I did not want to start cutting corners with my patients. I had quickly adjusted to thinking fast, being quick on my feet, and trying to fight for the doctors’ attention for exams. As a new graduate, I did not want to start making waves in my very first job.

For example, I was uncomfortable with performing four quadrant scaling and root planing in one appointment. This was because I usually had to administer two mandibular blocks to ensure patient comfort. Of course I thought that the dentist/owner would agree with my reasoning, but when I stated how I felt, the answer I received from her was, “That’s what we do here. It’s the same anesthesia if a patient is having all their third molars removed. What’s the difference?”

The office I’d immediately loved had me resenting the profession I’d been so passionate about just a few months earlier in school. I started having health problems from being so stressed at work. I came home angry almost every day and vented to my husband about not wanting to go into work again and repeat the same process over and over.

The day before I made the decision to leave, I was standing in the office setting up trays since my patient had cancelled his appointment. I remember feeling lightheaded, my heart was racing, and I knew that something didn’t feel right. I went into one of the operatories and grabbed the blood pressure cuff and took my blood pressure, three different times. It was 140/90 mm Hg, which was a huge shock for someone who consistently had a blood pressure reading of 118/76. I realized then that this “dream job” was compromising my health and happiness. That was my “aha” moment when I realized I did not have to tolerate being treated this way. I did not have to compromise my patients’ standards for the monetary benefit of someone else.

Learning to say no

Despite this negative environment, not only did I learn a lot about myself, but also what we as hygienists do and the impact we have on others’ lives. I learned to say no to a schedule that was not allowing me to spend adequate time with my husband and family, despite numerous conversations with the practice owner about working on weekends.

I learned to say no to dental assistants who were trying to bully me into coronal polishing on the pediatric side so that I was seen as a “team player,” in their words, despite the fact that I was backed up with my own patients. I learned to say no to the dental biller at the front desk who wanted me to start two quadrants of scaling and root planing on a patient with generalized 10 mm pockets in the last 20 minutes of the appointment. I learned to find my voice and say no to an office that was causing me so much unhappiness.

Most importantly, I learned how to assert myself in an office setting in a nonconfrontational way while still maintaining a professional demeanor. Asserting ourselves can often be difficult and feel awkward. We would much rather take on a task we do not ethically agree with, or fall behind on our schedules doing jobs that others should be responsible for, instead of confronting a coworker or boss. What we don’t realize is that saying yes to something we don’t agree with gives others the impression that it’s okay for them to continue to ask us to do these tasks.

Standing up for ourselves should never make us feel embarrassed or reluctant. As long as we get our messages across professionally - whether it’s pulling a coworker aside to have a private conversation, or scheduling a meeting with the boss to discuss topics important to us —asserting ourselves in the workplace should not be anything from which we shy away.

We often feel trapped in jobs where we feel loyal to our patients and colleagues. We’re quick to push aside our own thoughts and feelings for the comfort of our patients, and to make sure that our employers are happy with our performance. We try not to make a big fuss over things we disagree with. However, we should not be afraid to make waves and stand up for ourselves if we find ourselves in a toxic environment.

Whether this is your first year in practice or your 30th, you need to act on your gut instincts and listen to the small voice in your head that you sometimes push aside. The only way your boss or colleagues can pressure or bully you into compromising your professional, moral, and ethical standards is if you let them. Listen to that voice, and empower yourself. RDH

Datevig Tegeleci, RDH, BSDH, MA, has been a practicing clinician for two years. She received her master’s in biomedical sciences from Midwestern University and her bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene from West Coast University.