What it’s all about

May 1, 2007
April was a hard month for me. I was supposed to sit down and write this Editor’s Note.

by Mark Hartley

April was a hard month for me. I was supposed to sit down and write this Editor’s Note. Initially, my plan was to creatively connect a book about the “slow, leaky” evolution of the human brain (David Linden’s “The Accidental Mind”), a bizarre sighting of a robed man on Easter Sunday, and Toni Adams’ article on cultural perceptions (page 29). I actually wrote the Editor’s Note, but then a controversy involving a certain radio personality’s offensive comments about a certain women’s basketball team erupted all over the national headlines. I was left thinking, “Whoa! All of us need an accelerated evolution of the brain to fix our cultural stereotyping (as long as it doesn’t involve warm and fuzzy feelings for the Washington Redskins football team and its fans).” I still agree with Toni’s points in her article. Some of her facts are startling. But I think you need to figure out on your own if the cultural environment in your dental practice discourages care for minorities - without any help from me.

So I needed to start over with the Editor’s Note. It’s not the first time that I have written two or more Editor’s Notes for an issue. But I have been going nowhere fast during the last week or so.

Then I read a newspaper tribute to a hygienist who started working at a school the year I was born - 1954.

It wasn’t a national headline. The article likely just meant something to residents over 55 years old in the town of Attleboro, Mass., which is about halfway down the road between Boston and Providence.

It must be the sweetest tribute to dental hygiene I’ve ever read.

I asked Mark Flanagan, the editorial page editor of The Sun Chronicle, if I could quote him liberally. He kindly consented.

He was a student at the Bliss elementary school back in the day when families without a dentist could get their kids’ cavities filled for a buck co-payment. “Given that the minimum wage at the time was 75 cents, this was not the giveaway it might first seem,” the newspaper editor wrote.

Flanagan was a fan of the “penny candy from Stanton’s Market around the corner from the school,” which meant he spent a few appointments at the school district’s dentist - “a scary place” that was “audibly horrific” for the kids awaiting their turn outside.

He said the dental appointments “would have been absolutely unbearable if not for the ‘tooth lady’.”

He wrote, “That nickname [tooth lady] did not appear in the obituary for Ruth C. Conro of Attleboro, who died Saturday at age 89. Maybe it was only used in a few classrooms at Bliss, where she would bring big plastic teeth to illustrate lessons in proper brushing. Her son had never heard the sobriquet. ‘To my friends,’ he remembered with a laugh, ‘She was always ‘Ruth, Ruth, pull my tooth’.”

Flanagan explained that Conro was the school’s dental hygienist for 27 years and was a leading proponent for fluoridation in the Attleboro water system. She was a 1936 graduate of the Forsyth School of Dental Hygiene.

“And she held the hands of countless students sent to the school dentist and spoke reassuring words to them that made a scary visit tolerable,” he wrote.

Ruth Conro lost her job in 1981 due to budget cuts by the city government. She went into private practice for the duration of her career. But she had left her mark. Later in the decade, the town’s mayor had something to say about it.

“[The mayor] successfully pushed for a return of dental service in city schools,” Flanagan wrote. “And by his proclamation, Sept. 20, 1989, was observed as Ruth Conro Day, and she was honored for a half-century of continuing service in the dental hygienist’s profession.

“Eighteen years later, the return of school dental services has proved temporary. The occasional effort is made to get it back. Conro’s daughter-in-law [a school nurse] still finds a way to get brushes and paste to pupils in need, and has hopes the school system will win a dental service grant. ‘A poor family has to go all the way to Fall River or New Bedford if they can’t afford dental care,’ she says.”

The late Mrs. Conro is what dental hygiene is all about. I don’t know why I got bogged down by a story about the faulty development of our brains. There was something wrong with my brain. April turned out to be a good month after all.

I asked Flanagan if he was still a fan of the “penny candy.”

He cracked, “What this country needs is penny candy that doesn’t cost a nickel.”

Dental hygiene’s work is not done.