by Lory Laughter, RDH, BS
We are known by many names throughout our lives, and we're often defined more by what we do than who we are. Somewhere around my oldest child's fifth birthday, I lost my name and became "Jessi's mom." There are times even the child's name is dropped and I'm simply referred to as "that woman with all the kids."
After I completed college and passed the board exams, I had a new title — hygienist. Now I hear "the lady who cleans teeth" as often as I hear my name. My kids, who are now older, and their friends fondly call me "Toothpicker," a title that carries unsought responsibility.
It seems that a Toothpicker is not allowed to separate himself or herself from the profession or enjoy a tooth-free moment. Patients assume I'm always ready to give advice, and that I long to hear their tales of woe, no matter where I am or what I am doing. I have been asked to check flossing while shopping in a department store, and to look at a child's loose tooth while standing in the school registration line. I learned early in my career that it's better not to fight this "always open" perception.
My oldest son's sixth grade teacher was one of my patients. Since it was only a two-dentist county, almost everyone who saw a dentist was my patient. I was grocery shopping after an exceptionally long day. The teacher approached me and told me her son was having trouble with a baby tooth, and could I please take a quick look at it? In a moment of sarcasm, I responded, "Sure, and Michael is having trouble with tonight's English assignment. Perhaps you could find him in the store and just quickly give him some help." She was not happy with me. She actually called the dentist the next day to complain. After he finished laughing, the dentist asked me to be more sensitive to our patients. A true Toothpicker is a Toothpicker 24-hours-a-day!
When my boys return from camp, they notice that other parents ask their children, "Did you have fun?" or "Are you tired?" My first question is "Did you brush?" Anytime my children are away from home overnight, they come home and answer before I can ask, "Yes, Mom, I brushed." As a Toothpicker, I know they don't always tell the whole truth, but I have to ask.
Hygienists are expected to carry toothbrushes and floss at all times. The ophthalmologist is not required to carry eye charts, nor does the grocer always have free samples. But a Toothpicker without a spare brush is a faulty model in the public eye. Parents have actually sent their kids to spend the night at my house with instructions to ask for a toothbrush! On a three-day field trip with a fourth grade class, even the teacher told the kids who forgot their brushes to ask me for a spare. I guess it's natural for a Toothpicker to put spare brushes in her purse right after the spare change.
Children of Toothpickers are supposed to be immune to most dental problems. They are not allowed to have cavities, and braces bring looks of astonishment, even from other dental professionals. When Dan was eight, he had a cavity. When Dr. Small Talk asked him how he happened to get a cavity, he responded, "Has my mom ever told you about bacteria?" People are amazed to learn that my children participate in Halloween and even more amazed to discover they eat the candy. I do throw away about 75 percent of the loot when they are not looking, but this has little to do with their teeth. Nine kids is work enough, but nine kids on a sugar rush is pure torture.
Opportunities to share my knowledge bring me great joy. I recently had the opportunity to help a patient research treatment for a recurring lesion. We worked together by email for several weeks sharing information and resources. Imagine the smile on my face when he introduced me to his wife not as "the lady who cleans my teeth" or the "hygienist," but as his "oral health professional." The moment was short lived, however. He decided to show me the lesion and ask if I noticed any changes in a room filled with 30 to 40 people.
There are times I'm allowed to leave the dental box, but these moments are rare. At the first Roller Hockey game of the season, all spectators, including parents, had to sit on the opposite side of the rink from the teams and scorekeepers. When one parent asked about the change, the head referee pointed to me and answered, "Because 'Hockey Mom' gets a little excited and the players can't hear the coaches." I was so proud! Then a "dentist's wife" pointed at me and asked, "You mean the lady with all the kids?"
"I prefer Oral Health Professional," was my immediate reply. I let them figure it out.
Lory Laughter, RDH, BS, practices in Napa and Sonoma California in both general and periodontal offices. She graduated from Idaho State University and is a member of the Phi Kappa Phi honor society. Through her involvement with Dental Hygienists against Heart Disease and other organizations, Lory hopes to bring a total health concept to the dental practice.