Th 203623

Rocky Mountain high

March 1, 2006
Edie Gibson is a dental hygienist in Colorado whose fairy tale dream of owning her own unsupervised dental hygiene practice came true.

By Lynne H. Slim, MS, RDH

As a child, and before the days of Nintendo and DVDs, I used to read myself to sleep. It was fun to read under the covers with a flashlight, and more often than not I chose my favorite book: Grimms’ Fairy Tales. My absolute favorite was a story called “The Frog King,” in which a beautiful princess lost her favorite plaything, a golden ball. The ball fell into a well and vanished. The princess cried so hard that she attracted the attention of an ugly frog who offered to help. In the end, the frog turned out to be a handsome prince and, as a young and gullible reader, I was elated. But fairy tale endings and dreams do not always correspond with reality.

Edie Gibson is a dental hygienist in Colorado whose fairy tale dream of owning her own unsupervised dental hygiene practice came true. It took her many years of hard work and persistence to arrive at such a happy place, and I’d like to tell you what I have learned about her incredible journey.

View of Mount Crested Butte from "About Face" dental spa

In late September 2005, I flew into the Denver International Airport to attend the American Academy of Periodontology Saturday Dental Hygiene Symposium. I knew that Edie Gibson owned and operated a dental hygiene practice in Crested Butte, but I had no idea how far it was from Denver. As an adventurous soul, I figured that the four-and-a-half hour drive southwest of Denver would be a breeze. Crested Butte is a skier’s paradise set in a picture-perfect historic town nestled in a beautiful valley, surrounded by towering mountain peaks. The drive to Crested Butte was a visual delight, complete with views of mountains and canyons so spectacular that I wanted to take snapshot after snapshot every mile of the journey.

I arrived in Crested Butte in the middle of the afternoon, just when the sun was kissing the mountains and brilliant yellow aspen trees and creating a backdrop that photographers and artists love to capture. The historic resort town of Crested Butte has the feel and mood of a small Western town, complete with quaint, picturesque shops that sit below the towering (9,960-foot elevation) Mount Crested Butte. Edie named her shop/dental spa “About Face,” and her business card features two colorful masquerade party masks with a caption that reads, “Dental hygiene spa and cosmetic essentials.”

Edie Gibson's "About Face" dental hygiene spa

As I entered the parking lot in front of a lovely row of shops directly across from the imposing Mount Crested Butte, there it was - a simple sign above a large picture window announcing Edie’s business. A welcoming bench and a pot full of flowers sat outside the entrance to the spa. I knew, instinctively, that I was in for a sensory treat. All of my adult life I’ve dreamt of meeting a dental hygiene colleague who practices on his/her own time clock. That time had come, and I was ecstatic and overcome with joy and pride in our beloved profession!

Upon entering About Face, I was warmly greeted by a lovely business manager named Natalie. Because Fridays were devoted to practice-management tasks, Edie appeared dressed in street clothes. She greeted me with a smile and her positive energy was contagious. She had a rosy glow to her cheeks, and I soon found out that she was six months pregnant with her first child!

About Face is a leased facility. Edie practices dental hygiene in the back room (dental hygiene operatory) on Mondays and Tuesdays. She plans to hire an esthetician who will work in the dental hygiene operatory when she is not working. The front portion of the store is dedicated to cosmetics, aromatherapy products, and assorted gifts. While Edie is treating her clients, her Yorkshire terrier, Ms. Coco Chanel, curls up in her bed which sits atop a chair near the check-out counter in the front of the store. The day I met Ms. Coco Chanel, she was lying in her doggie bed, dressed in a warm, hand-knitted sweater with a decorative collar. What a pampered little pooch!

Edie and I firstbecame acquaintedwhen she joined the periotherapist Yahoo! group about a year ago where we regularly discuss various issues pertaining to evidence-based periodontal therapy. I knew that Edie had a varied career in dental hygiene, but I didn’t know then that her business acumen was well-developed and very successful. Not only does Edie operate a professional services company, but she has also introduced multiple product lines in her cosmetic/aromatherapy business. She has been a licensed dental hygienist for approximately 20 years, 10 of which were spent in Manhattan and Connecticut where she lectured nationally on dental implants.

Historic Crested Butte

Before interviewing Edie and Natalie, I strolled around town to take photos of the surrounding shops and natural scenery. As I turned a corner and entered a small café, I noticed a young man across the street with a strange-looking crown of assorted twigs, leaves, and autumn flowers on his head. I asked the café owner what was going on and he told me that the man was a performer in the town’s harvest festival called Vinotok. Apparently, I arrived on the day when Vinotok would be in full swing, complete with a community bonfire, feasting, and other assorted customs that have been celebrated for more than 20 years. The harvest banquet includes a roasted whole pig and polka dancing.

Crested Butte is predominantly a Colorado ski town and a winter paradise. Skiers and snowboarders enjoy the mountain’s thousand-plus acres of terrain, quaint shops, and excellent restaurants. When the snow melts, warmer weather brings wildflowers to life and other outdoor activities like hiking and mountain biking become popular. Crested Butte is a very small town of about 2,000 people. As of the year 2000, census data reports approximately 692 households with about 30 percent married couples. The median income for a household in the town is $41,250.

Dental hygiene spa services

As I toured Edie’s dental hygiene operatory, I was struck by the sense of tranquility that pervades the space. The smell of scented candles and the sight of a waterfall facing the dental chair, along with soothing music, provide a welcome environment for anxious clients. Edie’s operatory is equipped with a high-end ultrasonic unit, an intraoral camera, intraoral dental radiography equipment, and an in-office whitening system. On the days Edie works, she sees about six to eight clients and works from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. with an hour for lunch. Typically, in-office whitening procedures are performed in the morning from 10 a.m. to noon. Edie enjoyed telling me that she “works the way she wants,” and she schedules clients to meet the needs of both herself and her clients.

Colorado's Dental Hygiene Practice Act

Colorado’s hygienists who work in unsupervised practices cannot administer nitrous oxide or local anesthesia. Local anesthesia can only be administered under direct supervision if the specific educational requirement has been met. For debridement procedures, Edie uses a 2.5 percent lidocaine/2.5 percent prilocaine periodontal gel, and she is satisfied with the results. Very recently, unsupervised hygienists in Colorado learned that they can now place locally delivered antimicrobials, which will enhance nonsurgical periodontal therapeutic outcomes in many instances. A couple of dentists in the nearby Gunnison area (about 30 miles away) refer clients to Edie if their schedules are too full. Edie also has a great relationship with a local periodontist who was one of her previous employers.

Enhanced client communication

You’ve all heard the saying, It’s not what you say but how you say it that counts. Edie Gibson believes that personal relationships enhance communication and increase the general level of mutual understanding and trust. Therefore,Edie spends a lot of time with her new clients (she prefers the term “client” over “patient”). For a new adult client, she may spend 40 minutes just chatting while administering a paraffin hand wax. She is able to take her time and doesn’t feel pressured to accomplish certain tasks like she did when she functioned as an employee of a practice. “It’s my practice and I don’t have anyone behind me, pressuring me.”

In performing a new client assessment, she always asks permission to tell her client what she sees, and she spends a full 60 minutes on her new client assessment. Edie finds that the use of analogies makes her explanations of disease more meaningful. For example, she might say something like thisto get her client to understand bone loss: “Bone loss is like putting a stick of butter in a microwave.” She always makes a point of sitting directly in front of her client while conversing.

Bonding with clients is very important to Edie and she often refers to them as her “girlfriends” or “sisters/brothers.” Edie chooses her words carefully and uses layman’s terms when talking to her clients. “Plain speaking” is her forte, not only in her explanations of oral diseases, but in her day-to-day conversations with clients from all walks of life. She talks about “giving gums a facial” and “exfoliating gums” or “numbing you up to remove all kinds of junk beneath the gums.” The “plain speaking” approach is part of her overall practice philosophy. I think that Edie would agree that she gets back from her clients much more than she gives away, and I’ll bet her clients stop in to chat on a regular basis.

If she has trouble warming up to a client, seeing Ms. Coco Chanel often helps make that person feel welcome. After her visit with clients, Edie always thanks them for their business.

So why don’t more hygienists in Colorado run a dental hygiene spa practice like Edie? Could it be that hygienists don’t want the hassle of operating their own business? Overhead may be a barrier, too, but Edie has a business background which made it easier for her to adapt to a small business environment.

As I said goodbye to Edie, Natalie, and Ms. Coco Chanel that afternoon, I looked across the street at Mount Crested Butte and at the magnificent scenery that only the Rocky Mountains can provide. For me, the entire experience was the ultimate “Rocky Mountain high.”

May we cherish our profession and continue to make it a beautiful vista for all of us.