Th Rdh117566 30

Former IBM engineer relishes challenge of educating patients about hygiene

Sept. 1, 1998
When Nick Timko Jr. graduated from high school in the 1960s, he followed a fairly traditional career path. These days, he is somewhat of a nontraditional pioneer. But first, some background.

Judith E. Sulik, RDH

When Nick Timko Jr. graduated from high school in the 1960s, he followed a fairly traditional career path. These days, he is somewhat of a nontraditional pioneer. But first, some background.

Timko excelled in math and science in high school, so it was no surprise when he was steered toward the engineering field. After earning an associate degree in engineering science at Broome Community College in Binghamton, N.Y., he continued on at Clarkston University in Potsdam, N.Y., graduating with a bachelor`s degree in mechanical engineering.

What followed was a successful 24-year career with IBM as a mechanical engineer. He rode the wave of the computer field, working in the area of heat-transfer engineering for intermediate-size computers, as well as standards writing - picking up many awards along the way.

Timko lives near Endicott, N.Y., an area where IBM always dominated the job market. Everything was going along fine, and Timko never dreamed that he would ever work anywhere else. In fact, he said that employees routinely listed job security as the number one reason they enjoyed working for the computer behemoth.

But along came the 1990s, and IBM`s fortunes changed. For the first time in its long history, it began to "downsize." Job security was no longer sacred.

Timko began to evaluate his options. He considered the fact that the company had a pension policy that allowed employees to retire after they had achieved 30 years of employment - regardless of age. Timko thought long and hard about the probability that he would be able to keep his job for the remaining six years. He also was concerned that he might begin to experience pay cuts. For the first time, the future was uncertain.

Leaving New York state was not a desirable option. Timko and his wife Pat both had family ties that they didn`t want to break. But encouraged by family members who urged him to "move on," he accepted an IBM offer to leave the company with benefits by taking a bridge leave of absence for six years. This meant he would get credit for 30 years at the salary he was making when the leave took effect.

Six months after searching for an engineering job, he was frustrated.

But an idea had been percolating subconsciously for a long time, and it had to do with dentistry. He had never been a typical patient, and he was lucky to have had a dentist who supported his fascination with the field.

He said, "Our family dentist, Dr. Ronald Grant, lent me dental books and would show me procedures that patients don`t normally see, like how to polish a gold crown."

Timko added, "I`d always been interested in health, medicine, and dentistry. But I was comfortable in my career. I never had any real incentive to leave engineering."

Now he did.

An idea was beginning to emerge. Why not spend the next chapter of his life in a field that really interested him? Admitting that if he were 20 years younger he probably would have pursued dentistry, he instead returned to his academic roots and met with Dorothy Walsh, the chairperson of the dental hygiene department at Broome Community College. Four weeks after the interview, at the age of 46, he was a bona fide dental hygiene student.

Nick Timko had found his calling. He is now one of the small but growing number of male dental hygienists.

His enthusiasm for his new career is infectious. He had no problem wearing the white lab coat, white slacks, white shirt, and white socks as a hygiene student. He had no problem returning to the classroom after such a long hiatus - he graduated with a 4.0 grade point average. He also had no problem being the only man among women. He said he was treated the same as the other students and the only time his sex was remembered was when instructors caught themselves saying "she" repeatedly when referring to hygienists.

At an age when many of his counterparts dream of early retirement, Timko approached his career change methodically. He said, "After I finished the first year of the program, I decided to look for a summer job using my new education. I met a local dentist through a musician friend - I played drums that night and he played trombone - and in passing he mentioned that he might be able to use me for the summer. He was having the office completely remodeled. It was being gutted and new operatory plumbing and vacuum lines were being run. He said I could do hygiene assisting. So I did charting for the hygienists, cleaned the operatories, and I did some dental assisting."

But here his unique dental hygiene/engineering background led to a less typical dental hygiene responsibility. He was put in charge of the remodeling project and he helped design the new plumbing and vacuum systems.

Now, Timko`s transition is complete. He was hired by that dentist, Dr. Robert Carman, who practices with his son, Dr. Michael Carman. They employ four full-time hygienists. Timko practices dental hygiene four days a week with one hour per patient. The remainder of the week at Carman Family Dentistry is spent paying bills and doing budget tracking and analysis.

However, he can`t quite put his engineering skills behind him. He said, " Every time something breaks, I`m asked to fix it. I`ve repaired all kinds of dental equipment - the vacuum system, the office computer, and even the telephone. Now I`m working on a new computer system for the practice."

But he doesn`t have any regrets about becoming a dental hygienist. He said he`s able to use his skills and aspects of his personality that weren`t appropriate at IBM. He values his one-to-one relationship that a dental hygienist has with a patient, that one person can make a difference in another person`s health. He said, "At IBM, we designed products and applications that we believed would benefit the user. But I was never able to actually see the results of my work. There is no `60-minute` miracle in engineering, but there is in dental hygiene."

He continued, "In dental hygiene, you can tell when you`ve connected with a patient. It`s like a light goes on and you know you`ve made a difference. I really enjoy the educational aspect of working with patients. I work hard to figure out the right approach to each patient, not unlike finding the right approach with the students I taught while in hygiene school as a microbiology tutor. That`s always a challenge."

He`s pleased that patients respond well to him and he has been complimented on how well he can relate to them. He said he tries to "go with the flow" of the patient`s personality and he uses his sense of humor to put them at ease.

He said he approaches life in a methodical, logical manner, seeing a problem or project as a sequence of events, a way of thinking that is ideal to the dental profession. He enjoys the tactile experience and he notes that many patients have asked him if he plays the drums because he tends to twirl the instrument as he works.

Timko sees himself continuing to practice as a dental hygienist long into the future. Sometime memories of his former IBM days find their way into the office. He said, "Some of my former colleagues are now patients and when they start to tell me about their work stresses, my stomach begins to turn as I remember some of the stresses and sleepless nights I endured when making the decision to leave IBM. I have no nostalgia for those days."

So from a predominately male profession like engineering, Nick Timko has found his place in a predominately female career and he loves it. He notices that while the number of men entering the dental hygiene field is not record-breaking, they are slowly increasing. Broome Community College has had at least one man in each class during the last few years. He believes stereotypes keep men from going into dental hygiene.

Maybe it`s time for hygienist-mothers to recommend dental hygiene to their sons.

Judith E. Sulik, RDH, is a frequent contributor to RDH. She is based in Bridgeport, Conn., where she publishes recipe books under her company, Finely Finished Press.

The boss is in the band

Click here to enlarge image

Nick Timko (left) met his future employer,

Dr. Robert Carman, while playing tunes. He hasn`t quite shed his usefulness as an ex-IBM engineer. `Every time something breaks, I`m asked to fix it. I`ve repaired all kinds of dental equipment - the vacuum system, the office computer, and even the telephone.`