Healing hands, healing hearts

Little did I know when I graduated from dental hygiene school that my dental hygiene degree would also give me a degree in magic.

Little did I know when I graduated from dental hygiene school that my dental hygiene degree would also give me a degree in magic. Yes — a degree in magic, but not one that would give me the ability to pull a rabbit out of a hat or the power to disappear with the clap of a hand.

The magic that I am talking about is one that all dental hygienists possess. Think about this: every time we debride a periodontal pocket we set the stage for healing. Even though there are defined physiological reasons for healing, much has to do with the specific host resistance to infection. While the quantity and type of pathogenic organisms contribute to the overall success of our intervention, I am still amazed that our actions result in health. Isn't it magic to see an at-risk tooth successfully protected from the ravages of disease when we use appropriate clinical treatments? What about the magic of remineralization, site-specific antimicrobial treatments, host modulation therapies or all of the other wonderful recommendations that we can make?

Practicing "magic"

There is real science to support our clinical therapies. There are real products and treatment protocols that we can rely on to guide our healing hands, but the true magic lies in our ability to heal the hearts and spirits of everyone who enters our dental hygiene magic kingdom. We see wounded spirits every day. Some patients come with spirits deflated by the daily grind of living. Others arrive with gaping wounds, so large that one wonders if we can ever help. Behold the dental hygiene magic act. Which one of our patients doesn't feel ready to conquer the world when their smile is clean and fresh? How many of you have seen the miracle of a few kind words that makes the patient produce a radiant smile?

Do you see a miracle every time we connect with a plaque-laden pre-teen and rather than scold them, let them know how happy we are to see them? The sigh of relief that they have not had to face another adult put-down is priceless. I am banking on the fact that this relationship-building will come full circle in a few years.

What about the stressed-out mid-40s executive who used to work for the now-defunct big energy company? Should we focus on his gingival inflammation or should we let him know how happy we are to see him? Is it too sappy to let him know that we are honored that he considered his hygiene appointment important enough to keep? If their spirits or hearts are broken, can our gentle touch and soothing manner be the best therapy that we offer that day? Is it good enough to for us to disinfect all of their sulcular areas with our power scalers and remove the visible surface stains and not focus on the obvious inflammation in their soft tissues?

Weighing our goals

Can we let go of our high-level clinical goals when Bob arrives for his six-month recall appointment and announces that has his wife of 38 years died six weeks ago? Not only did Bob lose his life partner but his cat died and his refrigerator, microwave and televisions had to be replaced — all since his last hygiene appointment. "Bob" is a real person. He came into my treatment room last week hurting emotionally. When I asked how he was doing he gave me a short litany of the last three months, closing with, "I know you don't have time for this."

Quite the contrary. I have all the time to help Bob heal his heart. I have been his hygienist for years. Is it more important for our healing hands to give Bob a hug or focus on his inflamed gingivae? He is a vibrant 74-year-old drowning in the monsoons of life. I wanted to throw him a life raft. Six months will tell the tale, but I am certain that the Bob that I have known for years will survive the journey and will come in and tell me about all of the amazing things that have happened to him since his last appointment with me. And I am betting that his typically healthy gingivae will be back to normal.

Was it a disservice to Bob to focus on healing his heart rather than his gingivae? I don't think so. Healing hearts is a much greater challenge than saving a tooth. None of us took a course called Healing Hearts 101 when we were in school, but if you truly understand why it is so special to be a dental hygienist, then you have just earned an A+. Healing hearts allows us to touch another person's spirit and each time we help our patients heal this way we keep our spirits practicing in the comfort zone.

As a postscript, I should add that Bob phoned the office yesterday. He had lost a crown. When he arrived to have it re-cemented, he proudly announced that he had flossed his teeth every day since his hygiene appointment. Bob insisted that I inspect his mouth. He wanted to make sure that the gingivitis had cleared up. Even though Bob was in serious grief mode when he came in a month ago, he still heard my message about his health. What a bonus to realize that we had accomplished more than I had thought.


Anne Nugent Guignon, RDH, MPH, practices clinical dental hygiene in Houston, Texas. She writes, speaks, and presents continuing- education courses on ergonomics and advanced ultrasonic instrumentation through her company, ErgoSonics (www.ergosonics.com). She can be reached by phone at (713) 974-4540 or by e-mail at anne@ergosonics.com.

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