BY Cathy Hester Seckman, RDH
As hygienists, we're hard-wired to care about healthy living - as far as oral health is concerned. Increasingly, we've come to understand the interdependency of oral health and systemic health. Therefore, it isn't surprising to come across hygienists who have taken a step outside their operatories to support systemic health in ways that are important to them. Here are five hygienists and their stories.
Natalyn Bachek of Wilmington, North Carolina, is one half of Girls Gone Gluten Free (G3free.com), a set of social media sites owned by Natalyn and Lydia Chandler. Natalyn has been a hygienist for three years and splits her time between Edgerton and Fisher Cosmetic and Restorative Dentistry and Otero Family Cosmetic and Implant Dentistry. Besides those two offices, she also volunteers at the Cape Fear Clinic and was a 2014 member of the Colgate Oral Health Advisory Board. She and her husband, Kenny, have been married two years and have a black lab-dalmatian mix who loves to have his teeth cleaned.
She didn't start out wanting to be a hygienist. "I planned to go to veterinary school and have a focus in equine dentistry, but after a few internships, I knew I was being led in a different direction." One of her main goals, she explains, is impacting people's lives, so she shadowed a few hygienist friends and knew she'd found her calling.
Her involvement with gluten-free mentoring began three years ago. She had been diagnosed with celiac disease at age 13, when the problem didn't have such a high profile. "I had no idea how to cope with the diagnosis and no real guidelines to follow. Since then, researchers have found that one in 100 people has celiac disease, and the gluten-free lifestyle is everywhere you look. One of those diagnosed people happened to be my friend Lydia. We'd known each other all our lives, and she called one day to ask about celiac disease and how to get tested. She was exhibiting a lot of the symptoms. With her diagnosis in her early 20s, we thought it was time to get the word out about celiac."
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The two opened a Tumblr site, then a website, and now they're on Facebook, Pinterest, and YouTube. "It's all about living gluten free. We travel and blog for events as well as write reviews on products for companies that fit into the lifestyle of so many. We started Girls Gone Gluten-free in hopes that we could ease at least one person's heart after a celiac diagnosis. We want to convince them it is possible to live gluten free, and the world isn't over."
Melissa Brunett of Austin, Texas, says she "couldn't be happier" with her hygiene career at the office of general dentist Steven L. Yarbrough. She claims she had been enchanted with dental hygienists growing up - "they always seemed so happy, and who doesn't want that?" - and loves the wide and confident smile she gained through orthodontics.
"I couldn't imagine life being afraid to smile," she says now, "and I wanted to be a part of changing people's lives that way." She studied hygiene at Lamar Institute of Technology in Beaumont, Texas, graduating in 2006.
Her life took a turn a few years ago, when her best friend was prescribed a gluten-free diet. "She didn't even know how to boil water, and knowing I loved to cook, she came to me for help." Brunett's eyes were opened quickly.
"As I researched, I learned that gluten sensitivity could have triggered my own autoimmune disorder, Hashimoto's thyroiditis. I also discovered that it might contribute to my husband's ADHD." She began a gluten-free diet herself, then for her daughters, ages six and eight. Eventually, she says, even her husband admitted the diet was helping him. In general, family physicians have not prescribed the gluten-free diet for those who have not been diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten intolerance; however, Brunett's own doctor supports the idea that it may be helpful for other medical conditions.
The list of benefits the Brunetts have experienced from eating gluten free include better sleep, no abdominal pain, no brain fog, no joint pain, less digestive upset, fewer mood swings, less anxiety and depression, fewer temper tantrums, more balanced blood sugar, less hyperactivity, and better concentration. "There may be more," Melissa says, "but I'd say that's enough to be worth it!"
It didn't take long, however, for her to discover that commercial gluten-free baked goods didn't taste like the foods she'd known growing up. "Unhappy with anything I had found in the stores, I spent countless hours researching on the Internet and in the kitchen." She tried recipe after recipe, tossing them out one after the other. Finally, she reports, "I developed some delicious treats that were not really distinguishable as gluten free. I received encouragement from all around me and felt a calling to start a business."
Ebenezer Foods (at www.ebenezerfoods.com and on Facebook) already has a loyal following. Customers especially love her cinnamon rolls, and Melissa also sells mixes for chocolate and vanilla cakes; muffin and cookie mixes; and bread, cornbread, and waffle/pancake mixes. The mixes are versatile. Chocolate cake can be used for brownies and thin mint cookies; vanilla cake has been used for velvet, angel food, strawberry, and carrot cakes, plus lemon squares. Melissa has even made king cakes for Mardi Gras.
She explains that ebenezer means stone of help. "It reflects my faith and the purpose of the baking mixes. I wanted them to be simple and safe for those suffering with food allergies, so anyone would be able to use them to make anything they can dream. Some of my best memories are of rolling out pie dough with my Granny and Sunday dinners at my Grandma's."
A person suffering from food allergies has limited choices that are not always satisfying. "Often," she adds, "you're unsure if they're safe. I've done my best to lift those limitations by creating a wide variety of delicious and safe foods. To ensure safety, all products are hand-made in a certified gluten-free facility with non-GMO ingredients. All products are free from dairy, soy, and nuts, and most are free from eggs and corn as well."
Presently, Melissa rents space in a local certified gluten-free kitchen, packing all the products by hand in the evenings with the help of a recently hired neighbor. She's been negotiating with retailers and hopes to have her own space soon so she can increase production.
Melissa says it's hard work to keep a part-time business going with a day job and two children, "but seeing the excitement on someone's face as they indulge in a cinnamon roll makes it all worth it."
Ann Fothergill, owner of Annabelle's Holistic Health, is not only a 30-year hygienist, but also a licensed massage therapist, a Level 2 Reiki practitioner, and has a certificate in clinical aromatherapy. She's also taking classes this summer to learn about chakra and energy healing.
Ann, who lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, graduated from Marquette University with a bachelor's degree in 1980 and currently works part-time for Dr. Mark Greulich at Wales Dental. "Our office," she reports, "is a busy but happy place with emphasis on teamwork, thoroughness, and caring. I look forward to going to work and love our patients."
She and her husband, Jackson, have three grown children and a 14-year-old grandson. She and Jackson live an active life with regular exercise and yoga. She has always been interested in holistic health and working with herbs and essential oils.
"At age 50 in 2008, I went back to school to become a massage therapist. I am thrilled to have this skill to bring relaxation and relief to people." Her newest educational adventure was an essential oils class. "It was amazing, and I felt empowered to share the information and help others help themselves."
Because she had always been interested in herbs and essential oils, her next step was to take a class from Christina Wilke-Burbach, PhD, RMT. Wilke-Burbach is a holistic psychologist, aroma herbalist, educator, and Reiki master teacher. The class, Ann says, included more than 200 hours of education about the chemistry, contraindications, medical interactions, safety, history, and profile of each essential oil.
"I felt empowered," she says, "to share this information and help others help themselves in a natural, holistic manner. Anyone using or selling essential oils should know the facts about them. I feel the wave of the future is using food, herbs, essential oils, alternative medicine, acupuncture, acupressure, exercise, yoga, meditation, and Western medicine for well-rounded, well-informed healthy living."
Joining this wave, Ann founded Annabelle's Holistic Health, a company that sells essential oils to support aromatherapy, Reiki, reflexology, and other natural approaches to holistic health. She buys oils from reputable companies to ensure the products are unadulterated, then compounds her own blends.
"Customers first fill out a health history - similar to one you would fill out at a dental office. I am addressing the whole person with my blends - mind, body, spirit, and emotion."
Ann points out that although essential oils have been used for thousands of years, there has not been much scientific research on their use. The field of aromatherapy is self-regulated. All of that is beginning to change since hospitals and nursing homes have become interested in essential oils. "Hospitals are investigating the use of oils for infection control. Oils are very complex, and bacteria can't figure out how to outsmart them chemically. Elder-care facilities are seeing the benefits of essential oils for relaxation and improved cognition. Pain relief can be provided if the oils are used appropriately."
She informs customers that no essential oil should be ingested or applied to the skin undiluted. Some should not touch the skin at all as they can cause adverse reactions. Certain oils can't be used for babies and pregnant women. Children and elderly people require higher dilutions.
"Our goal is to do no harm and be ethical in using and promoting these oils. This is not unlike the oath of a dental hygienist. Although history has shown their efficacy, we cannot claim that oils heal, take away muscle pain, improve memory, alleviate anxiety and depression, improve stress, heal skin, etc. We have to use very vague terms such as calm, moisturize, relax, invigorate, soothe, and energize.
"If a claim such as 'treats cellulite' is used in labeling, for instance, the FDA can issue a warning letter. Although this is a little frustrating, more and more scientific studies are being done, and I feel the future is wide-open. My husband, family, friends, and coworkers have been so very supportive. It is wonderful to do something which brings me great joy and makes others healthy and happy."
Besides providing custom essential oil blends, Annabelle's Holistic Health also markets bath salts, neck wraps, eye pillows, body butters, room sprays, all-natural cleaning solutions, personal inhalers, diffuser blends, drawer sachets, and massage oil blends. The company has a Facebook page and a website, www.annabellesholistichealth.
Hygienist Lisa Tranni of York, Maine, has been in dentistry since 1986. "I was hired as a receptionist by a dentist who admired my service to customers while waitressing in a restaurant, and the rest is history. In 2002, at another office, the decision to become a dental hygienist was bred from need more than anything else. I was managing the business office at a periodontal practice, and covering for a surgical dental assistant on maternity leave. We struggled to find hygienists. I was pursuing a bachelor's degree in business, but dental hygiene was a lucrative career and the possibilities seemed endless. By that time I had gotten over any fear about the blood and guts part of dentistry. I decided I would get my hygiene license and be available to work when needed [at] the periodontal office."
It turned out the timing was perfect. Lisa's husband was able to help out with childcare for their preteen son, and she was able to attend the University of New England full-time. She and her former employer decided they fit better as mentor and mentee than as employer and employee. "He has been an incredible source of support for me, and still is today. I was fortunate, upon graduation, to receive a phone call from Dr. Stephen Swallow. A former coworker had shared my name with him. After one interview, a paper outlining my dental hygiene philosophy, and an eight-hour working interview, the position was mine." Both Lisa and Dr. Swallow still work at the same practice, which is now owned by Dr. Brendan Hallissey.
Exercise, nature, and healthy living are important to Lisa. "I do spin classes, yoga classes, meditation, gardening, and yard maintenance. I love walking the beach and people watching. I am a spiritual seeker. It is my daily work to live in the present. Challenges in life have guided me and continue to shape who I am and my dedication to this lifestyle. I am personally responsible for this life I have been given, and it is mine to live, choice by choice. Some days are better than others. Patient and customer relationships fuel my life's purpose of being of service to others."
When she came across a Medicine Wheel Herbals booth at a local festival three years ago, Lisa was immediately intrigued. "There are so many companies that claim they are 'all-natural' or 'chemical-free,' but when you do the research, you see that the claims are untrue. Medicine Wheel Herbals uses only carefully sourced plant oils, herbs, and essential oils, never with any chemicals, fragrances, or dyes. The ingredients of all products are completely listed on every product they produce. Soaps are wrapped in biodegradable materials."
Medicine Wheel Herbals LLC is a small business in Maine that makes and markets herbal soaps, lotions, balms, and deodorants. Lisa sells the products at local home-and-garden shows, craft fairs, and markets. She also keeps an eye out for shops she thinks would be a good fit for the products.
A typical day at a weekend market includes introducing the products and sharing the health benefits. "I like to think I am the ambassador for this brand. Like dentistry, when you believe in the health benefits of your products and personally use them, it is more like sharing than selling. I am a people person and enjoy the mutual exchange of educating and learning from people who live mindful, healthy lives."
Medicine Wheel also offers classes where participants make their own herbal products. The company can be contacted at www.medicinewheelherbals.com.
Amy Williams, RDH, of Clarkston, Michigan, is interested in natural foods and herbology, but cannot give specific treatment options or call herself an herbologist because of state laws in Michigan. "I'm not allowed to offer herbal advice, so I'm careful to offer no more than suggestions."
Before herbology, Amy was obsessed with teeth, according to her mother. Amy even recounts, "Just before high school ended, I was going around to offices, handing out resumes. A dentist offered to train me as an assistant, so I accepted the job. My mentor was Melissa Priest, an assistant there who wanted to go to hygiene school. She was a great resource, and I loved the fact that dental hygiene was not just about teeth but the entire body. Melissa ended up being my big sister in hygiene school. I graduated from Oakland Community College in 2008, and I work for Dr. Joe Robertson, who is also an OCC faculty member."
When she's not working, Amy has always enjoyed traveling with her family, watching her children's sporting events, and learning about herbs and functional medicine. Life took a more serious turn when her first child, Lamont Jr., was diagnosed with celiac disease. At that point, her herbalist hobby turned into an avocation.
"Doctors had told us we would be lucky if he made it to age 5, but he's now 12. Our lives changed overnight, and we became part of the special needs community. We no longer had a normal life. We had a child who would face a lifelong battle and have obstacles to overcome along the way."
From the beginning, Amy was not interested in covering up her child's symptoms with drugs. "I wanted to look for the causes and for natural ways to help or address issues. As I was learning, I was giving suggestions to other special needs families, and my name was being referred within the community."
The Williams family now also includes daughter Amiley, 10, and son Lorenz, four. Her daughter was at one time diagnosed with ADHD but no longer has that diagnosis - Amy believes this is due to the family's natural foods lifestyle. She says that teachers have been shocked. Amiley says she does not feel left out when her friends eat normal school lunches. "She tells me no, she doesn't want to eat like them because now she isn't sick all the time."
Lorenz has cerebral palsy and a traumatic congenital diaphragmatic hernia, which means that his diaphragm is paralyzed. He also has pectus excavatum, a chest deformity that can impair cardiac and respiratory function. The family regularly travels to a pectus clinic in Virginia for his treatment.
Lorenz's problems spurred Amy to reach out further to help other parents of children with special needs. She ended up with a Facebook page, natural healing + pureherbs, that has more than 3,000 members. She recommends Pure Herbs, a Michigan business owned by naturopathic doctor Eugene C. Watkins (www.pureherbs.com).
"We advocate Pure Herbs on our site because we believe in herbal liquid extracts. We support the master cleanse and the 21-day cleanse, using food and herbs to clean the liver, lymph, blood, and bowel. We offer suggestions and how to research products. The main goal of my group is to try to reach those who can't afford essential oils or are looking for suggestions. I want to help people look for pure and inexpensive ways to help themselves. I believe that helping people make healthier choices in food will help them in the long run with health-related issues."
Amy also offers suggestions on books and web pages. "This is where my heart and my passion are, in helping guide people into a healthier lifestyle."
Amy is presently attending the Michigan Institute of Natural Health, earning a certificate as a naturopathic doctor. The certificate will not be recognized in Michigan, but she believes that attitude may be changing. "Recognition is being sought in the legislature, since more people understand the importance of natural healing. We need help with the diabetes epidemic and other health crises. Medicaid and Medicare are also asking for help from naturopathy."
All five women believe the time is coming when naturopathic medicine will be recognized and compensated as a valuable adjunct to traditional Western medicine. As hygienists, their health-centric perspective is already broad enough to include natural living with essential oils, herbs, gluten-free products, and alternative therapies. RDH