Overcoming fear together

Jan. 1, 2006
For the first six hours I called it writer’s block. For the next six hours I referred to it as “the burning pit below.

For the first six hours I called it writer’s block. For the next six hours I referred to it as “the burning pit below.” But now it has become obvious. Fear! I can’t finish my column because of fear! What really makes me mad is that it is a darn good column, chock full of useful information and brilliant insight. But the shortcomings of my own brain will not let me complete it.

It all began with a small infection - a post-surgical complication from more than 14 years ago. We celebrated 17 months later when I was pronounced infection free. Eleven short years later, it has returned. My once small infection has turned into a life-changing series of events and frustrations. How can one small infection cause so much damage to an otherwise healthy system?

It happens in dental lives too. It is possible for one employee to drain the life and excitement out of the entire team. It only takes one annoyed and unhappy person to contaminate the whole office. Like my staph infection, this one person can spread disease to otherwise content co-workers. Left unchecked, this discontent individual will use gossip, rumors, and bad karma to ensure that every team member is miserable.

When my infection reared its ugly head again in July 2001, I ignored it. Denial was the preferred plan of action by my scared and confused brain. Finally, in November 2002, the monster refused to be ignored and made me incredibly ill.

We often ignore co-workers or employers who deplete our reserve of energy and spirit. We either blame ourselves for the negative feelings or tell ourselves that it happens only eight hours a day and we can handle it. Little do we realize how much these people take from us in small but constant doses. Then one day we find ourselves in total meltdown. Worse yet, we say things we regret later. Anger spoken in a moment of anguish is never the right answer. We allowed the disease to escalate out of control.

Tomorrow I will endure my seventh surgery to try to combat this infection. All seven have occurred since January 2003. I’ve become far too familiar with the pre-op terms and procedures. When the surgery nurse called to give me pre-op arrival instructions, I made a game out of writing down what she would say before she said it. I won the game, but victory was not sweet. This is not the life I want to be living.

Disease and stress do odd things to our bodies and emotions. My patience is low, my resistance to small annoyances is non-existent, and my well-built wall of comfort is crumbling. I like my wall, I am even proud of my wall, and the thought of losing it is a big source of fear. The world is not ready to experience Lory without her wall, and vice versa.

Perhaps the emotionally draining co-worker is afraid to show the real person inside. Maybe his/her unhappiness comes from trying to hide flaws and imperfections. Dentistry is not always a forgiving profession. And dental hygienists can be some of the most perfection-demanding folks around. We are goal oriented and driven, which is necessary for success in our careers. I’m aware that most hygienists are compassionate and caring, but this is a side often saved for our patients and not shared with others in our work environment.

Who can blame us for being so staunch? We regularly have to fight for respect from dentists, assistants, and office managers. We fight negative and downright wrong images about our profession in the media. The public doesn’t understand what services we provide, and often the powers that be won’t even let us provide those services, at least not without rules and regulations so strict we can’t turn around in our chairs without a written prescription or direct supervision. It isn’t a question of what we are fighting, but how we are fighting it.

So far, denial has not been an effective weapon in defeating my infection. I am pretty sure that getting upset and taking it out on those around me is not going to produce a positive outcome. This time around I plan to listen to the experts and glean as much information as possible to help myself, and I will allow those who know more to educate me. Only then will I act with the full intent on winning my battle.

We hear it all the time: education is the key. But how many of us actually put the cliché to the test? It’s not easy to give accurate and precise information, then step back and watch the recipient do whatever they want with the gems we provided. We’re only responsible for the things we can control. The message is our responsibility and the reception is out of our hands.

When I return to work after my recovery period I will truly empathize with the negative co-worker. I will make it my goal to give information to guide this person towards help. Whether or not the information is accepted is not up to me. Similarly, we can all devote more time and energy to educating the public about dentistry and the vital role dental hygienists provide. But we can’t force the boards or legislatures to rule in our favor. The important thing is that we give them all the facts, figures, and information they need to make the appropriate decisions.

On a personal level, I vow that the negative co-worker will never be me. I refuse to let the disease engulf my goals and happiness. Being a carrier of a gloomy disposition is not an option. That is not the person I want to be. My family and co-workers deserve much better.

I know I cannot fight the infection alone. It takes an incredible number of support people to formulate a winning plan. No matter how strong I pretend to be, this staph has me whipped.

One dedicated dental hygienist is not going to fight and win our battles for us. It takes time, effort, dedication and money from all of us to institute an action plan to defeat the forces that hold us back. If we have any hope of moving forward into general supervision for every hygienist, regardless of where he or she practices, we all need to commit to be involved. Membership in the ADHA is vital in this process and I encourage everyone to become involved.

My fear remains for the time being. Fear that this won’t be my last battle with the infection. Fear that I won’t be able to finish my column. Even fear that I will not be a positive influence on those around me. But mostly fear that someone will see over my wall. Tonight I have stepped out on the edge and shared my fear with my readers. Whether our fears are professional, personal, or something else, we may be able to collectively push them over the edge and start on a new path. It is my hope that we can help each other in these pursuits. Together we can accomplish anything.