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A story of passion ...The Journey of Two Women

Nov. 1, 2004
Authors embrace change together in an effort to derive more fulfillment from their carerrs.

by Patti DiGangi, RDH, BS, and Debra Grant, RDH, CA

Dental hygiene professionals are similar to many other groups when it comes to change. When graphed, their reaction to change appears like a bell curve. There are a few who embrace change and love to be on the leading edge, and there is a similar number who fear change. The largest group is somewhere in the middle.

This is the first article in a series that deals with finding our passion to not only adapt, but to adapt to proactive changes. The series is built from the personal and professional experiences of two dental hygienists with 30-plus years experience, no different than most of you.

For a long time, we were in the middle of the bell curve. Then, something changed...

This series will be about that change, how we found our passion, and how you can find yours.

Patti's Journey
From ketchup to mercury: The early years

I've been in dentistry since high school. I got my first job in dentistry when the family dentist asked my dad, "Do any of your girls need a job?" At the time I was working at Dog 'n' Suds for 50 cents an hour. My interview consisted of the dentist saying, "Be here Monday at 3 p.m. with white pants on."

My on-the-job training was, "There's the phone, there's the appointment book, goodbye." Based on the intensity of my training, I booked patients every 15 minutes for as many slots as the book contained. On my second day, I was asked to assist with a surgical procedure - no gloves, no mask, no clue.

On slow days, I sat at the front desk playing with mercury on extracted teeth. The dentist would call out, "I need two on toast!" which meant I had to mix two pellets for the amalgam.

After 18 months the dentist hired a hygienist. I didn't know what a hygienist was. My career options were secretary, teacher, or nurse. The hygienist was Harriet Ludjin, RDH, BA, MaAEd, the person who most influenced my career. Harriet took the time to show me the kindness and respect that peers can have in a dental office. Harriet has been my mentor ever since.

When you don't know what you don't know: Educational first years

Soon after I enrolled in dental hygiene school, my mother was killed in a car accident, and I was responsible for raising my younger sisters and running the household. I knew my education was important, and I felt an obligation to participate in student groups, but I was unable to really make the commitment. After graduation, I attended some component meetings. The first one was a Merle Norman makeover party! It had nothing to do with cleaning teeth and less to do with enhancing my profession, but it was all I knew.

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By the time I was 27, I realized I had a great life, but it wasn't my life. I was married, and we had a house and a boat. I made most of my decisions by not deciding at all. The decisions I made were not necessarily what others thought, but rather my misinterpretation. My life was a series of reactions, and it was time for a change. I didn't know what that change would be, or where it would lead me, I just knew that my decisions were going to be the beginning of my proactive journey.

Where's the path? The changing journey

I started making my own choices. They were not always direct and they were not always clear, but they were my choices. I had help - mentors who helped me see life differently. I pictured who I wanted to be in great detail. I attended seminars, workshops, listened to tapes, and started hanging around with people of like mind. I remember the day I "got it." It was March 17, 1988. It had taken me nine years, but the picture was clear. I had been complacent. I measured my success or failure based on those outside of myself, and I never made a commitment to be the best that I could be.

With my newfound zeal, I plunged into my profession. I joined the ADHA. I'd love to tell you it was a wonderful experience, but it wasn't. Like any organization, there were cliques and an accepted way of doing business that afforded new members no opportunity for influence.

I became president-elect of my component, a voluntarily elected position. The new president was Deb Grant. I remember the first words she said to me when I asked her what my job description was. She told me to pick up the AV equipment and find some place to store it.

Deb's Journey
The good daughter: Mom's path

My mother was a dental assistant. She introduced me to the profession. In the dental office, my mom was most influenced by the dental hygienist, Jackie Kingsfield. My mother marveled at Jackie's communication skills and her ability to assess individual patient's needs. What made an even bigger impression on my mother was Jackie's compensation package. My mom had a mission to steer me towards dental hygiene. She convinced me that it was a good field to be in part time while married and raising a family, because that is what women do with their lives: Get married and raise a family. With initial reservations, the good daughter dutifully went to hygiene school.

I thought it would be easy since it was only a two-year degree. I carried my mother's naivety to my first class. Microbiology? Head and neck anatomy? Chemistry, spirochetes, amoebas, anaerobic bacteria, nutrition counseling, pharmacology, medical assessment? OMG! What did I get myself into? What I expected to be a fun, part time "hobby" turned into a rigorous career in oral health care.

The brave journey

If school was tough, the national board exams were worse. I got married while in school. After working for a year in Bloomington, Ill., my new husband was offered a job in Palm Beach, Fla., where I had to take the dreaded Florida state boards.

Five years later, I had my two beautiful daughters, and just like my mother said, it was a great job to have while raising children. I was the good little daughter, the good little wife, and, best of all, the good little mother. I was so good at everything that my husband filed for divorce.

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I needed a full-time job. In Florida, preceptorship was breathing down our necks. I started a temp agency called Elite Temp Agency. My clients were self-disciplined, self-motivated, projected a clean image, were up on the latest equipment and techniques, and acquired more than enough CEs. They were the cr

Realizing that the Sunshine State was not big enough for my ex-husband and me, I moved back to Illinois with my daughters to begin the job hunt that would change my life. I temped on my own and worked with a few temp agencies to get a feel for the dental community. I joined ADHA for the first time to get acquainted with some like-minded people and to network among focused professionals.

I was enthusiastically greeted at my first component meeting by the hygienist at the registration desk. Inside, I was invisible. The leaders sat at tables and talked among themselves. Not one of them came over to say hello. I introduced myself and was greeted with off-handed indifference until ... they needed volunteers. Then I had 60 friends.

I volunteered because I was needy, wanted to fit in, and wasn't happy with the current new member protocol. The next thing I knew I was vice president, a position created for me. Two years later, I was the new president. My first presidential decision was telling the newly elected president elect that her job was to pick up the AV equipment and store it.

Our first year together

Leadership began with change, and change began with leadership. By the end of my term, meeting participation had tripled. The year of my component presidency was one of the most enriching years of my life. As I prepared to hand the gavel over to Patti, I had a thought from the movie, "As Good As It Gets." Just as Jack Nicholson told Helen Hunt, I told Patti, "She made me want to be a better woman." When Patti became president, participation continued to grow.

While we have different beginnings and travel different paths, the journey is the same for all of us. With Patti and Debi, we had an immediate connection. Different than the majority of relationships, it is a story of the profession, women of all cultures and backgrounds, and a love and respect for each other that we cultivate daily. The puzzle pieces have come together and our journey begins.

We want to take you with us on the next leg of our journey. In fact, this is a series of six true stories where we discover a true passion for our profession and commitment to making a difference. We want you to find your passion. We will help you discover the pieces and people in your puzzle. Let's see how they come together. Join us in the next issue for another adventure and tools to help find your passion and purpose.

Patti DiGangi RDH, BS, is a seasoned speaker, offering interactive courses and motivational keynote addresses that contain new, updated, and practical information that has been "tested in the trenches" through her ongoing clinical practice in the Chicago area. To contact Patti, call (630) 292-1473 or e-mail her at [email protected]

Debra Grant, RDH, CA, continually challenges the profession of dental hygiene through her innovative company Oraspa(tm), Inc., "the original dental spa," along with her motivational and inspirational speaking, educational programs and consulting. To contact Debi, call (630) 640-0473 or e-mail her at [email protected]

Debra and Patti present programs together and separately through Professional Directions Conferences (PDC), an evolving provider of continuing professional learning and motivation education.