Stacey Ehlers is one of those people who makes you say, “Wow.” If you’ve ever thought that your life is boring and scripted, that you’re in a rut doing the same things day after day ... then you’ll find Stacey interesting and, depending upon your position in the life cycle, inspiring. At only 25, she has definitely packed a lot of experiences into a short time.
I first heard about Stacey Ehlers when she was a dental hygiene student and gave a presentation about her experiences doing body piercings, specifically in the mouth. I found the tongue piercing stories very intriguing, so I began a search to locate Stacey. I quickly found that her life path was not a predictable one on a number of levels. After Stacey graduated from Fones School of Dental Hygiene at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, she moved to the tropical paradise of the U.S. Virgin Islands to practice dental hygiene. By the time we finally spoke, she was back in the continental United States, in Atlanta, Ga., working at what she describes as the “most fabulous opportunity a hygienist could find.”
So let’s begin ...
An indication that Stacey thinks for herself was her decision to drop out of high school. Stacey admits she’s made decisions that, in most families, would have resulted in major arguments and power struggles, but things always seem to work out for her. Her mother, she said, “is my rock and best friend. She helps guide me, and has put up with a lot from me. Can you imagine having a daughter like me? But we are very close.”
For most people, staying in school would seem the most predictable or easiest route. But Stacey studied for her high school degree while working at a body piercing and tattoo parlor. And, yes, she performed tongue and lip piercing, a practice that she found out later can be detrimental for one’s teeth and oral health.
Two months shy of her 18th birthday, Stacey had a near-death accident when a legally blind, 80-year-old driver hit her while on her motorcycle. The upper left side of Stacey’s body was broken. After an experience like that, one doesn’t take the future for granted. Stacey decided to seize what life had to offer, go full-throttle ahead, and at age 19, she bought a house and got married.
After obtaining her high school diploma, Stacey began her first position in a dental practice as a chairside assistant, where she worked for nearly six years. During this same time, she began taking college preparatory classes at the local community college as the first step toward an associate’s degree. For the next four years, she took classes and worked. It was also during this period that she began to seriously consider a career as a dental hygienist, so she applied to the Fones School.
Things have not always come easy to Stacey, and the hygiene school chapter of her life was no exception. Bridgeport, Conn., was a 90-minute one-way commute from her home in East Hampton. So she got up at 4:45 a.m. to make it to class, and spent a total of three hours a day on the road. Unfortunately, making the decision to go to school full time meant leaving her job as a dental assistant. But since she needed to work, she got a job at a fishing and hunting store a few miles from her home. She said in addition to learning a lot about fishing and hunting, she was able to study when the store was quiet because the owner was very supportive of her efforts to advance.
Midway through the dental hygiene program, she and her husband divorced. It became even more important that she be able to balance work and school. At last, in 2003, Stacey completed her long academic journey, graduated, and obtained her dental hygiene license.
Now, most people would let out a big sigh and apply for a local dental hygiene job. Not Stacey. She knew she wanted adventure and the opportunity to “work in a beautiful place.” So she did what any tech-savvy person would do - she posted her resume on the Internet with a statement that she was “ambitious with drive, desirous of a dental hygiene job in a beautiful locale.”
In response, a hygienist called her to say she was leaving a position in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and asked Stacey if she was interested. Without hesitation, Stacey seized the opportunity to travel there for an interview. She bought two airline tickets - one for her and one for her dad. Her father had given her both moral support and money for books, so as a thank you, she invited him on the trip. Well, he thought it was just going to be a nice father/daughter celebration of her achievements; she didn’t tell him the trip was career-related until they arrived.
The position was with a dentist from Staten Island, N.Y., who had relocated to the Virgin Islands 25 years ago. He made Stacey an offer to become a hygienist there, but she wasn’t sure it would work. She flew home, put her house on the market, and the next day she got an acceptable offer. She was off to the Islands!
After the hectic, schedule-driven life of dental hygiene school, working in the Islands was a complete change. She said, “Every night was Friday, but every morning was Monday. Everything is real slow there. If a patient shows up, you’re happy. Time is not of the essence; island time is different. The West Indians only consider having dental treatment when they’re in pain. It’s really difficult to schedule recall appointments.” She also said it wasn’t unusual to perform an unplanned extraction while doing a prophy.
Although a paradise geographically, after working there for one year Stacey decided it was time to return to the States and look for a dental experience. She returned to Connecticut, where she worked another year for two dentists, one in Bristol and another in Old Lyme.
Then, a chance at love came along. She reconnected with a childhood friend who lived in Atlanta, Ga., and decided to give the relationship a chance. Once again she turned to the Internet to look for work.
Through a fortunate twist of fate, Stacey found a position as a hygienist and treatment coordinator for the Atlanta Center for Cosmetic Dentistry, an internationally known practice founded by Dr. Debra Gray King and housed in a large, southern-style mansion.
Stacey saw very quickly that the Atlanta Center was far different from the Virgin Islands practice. She said, “People come from everywhere - from the Bahamas to New York - to this practice, which performs high-end cosmetic procedures every day.” A patient’s every need is attended to, revolutionizing the way dental treatment is delivered. Stacey said that if a patient mentions liking Diet Coke and Willie Nelson music, there will be a glass with their favorite beverage and Willie music playing in the background at their next appointment. The waiting room is more like a living room and every patient is addressed by name, allowing clients to feel right at home.
This is a top-of-the-line practice. Stacey said, “Care is comprehensive; patients work directly with their insurance companies so we can focus on giving our clients the best results possible. There are about five hygienists, six cosmetic dentists, and a total of about 30 people in all.” Stacey said that she thinks a hygienist is the perfect person to discuss dental procedure options with patients.
The practice also offers “organic sedation,” which uses innovative techniques to distract patients from the fear and possible pain of dental procedures without using as many drugs and medications. This approach includes the use of the practice’s one-of-a-kind “Dental Zen Chairs” to help relax patients with soothing sound vibrations from head to toe. The practice also offers hand and foot massages, given by a full-time massage therapist, which puts people into a kind of trance. Waterfalls and aromatherapy throughout the office provide patients with an overall sense of calmness.
The practice has cross-trained Stacey as a treatment coordinator, allowing her to discuss treatment options with patients. While her goal is to help patients choose the right options, her salary does have a commission dimension when needed. But what Stacey really enjoys is being able to help people get the look that suits them best.
She recommends this type of cross-training for hygienists who want to continue to expand their dental knowledge. Stacey recently received her Georgia license, and now she has the ability to follow patients through their treatment.
Along the way, Stacey has used her knowledge and creativity to dream up solutions to make her patients’ experiences more pleasant and memorable. As an example, she invented and patented a fluoride dispenser for pediatric offices. She said, “There are 30 flavoring agents; the child chooses the flavors desired, the machine mixes them, dispenses them into a cup, caps it, and seals it. Strawberry and grape taste like cotton candy. My preference is for the smooth flavors.” Stacey hired a patent attorney with an engineering background so they could do the drawings together. Now she is looking for a company either to do a prototype or buy the invention to sell it.
Currently Stacey is finishing her bachelor’s degree through the University of Bridgeport’s online degree program. Who knows what’s next for this intrepid woman! She is already making retirement plans by studying for her “six-pack license,” which will allow her to captain a commercial fishing boat one day.
Anyone hesitant about living life without a script need only reflect on the adventures and accomplishments of this young woman for permission to take a chance.