Putting ourselves first

Dec. 1, 2011
You can’t possibly take care of others until you take care of yourself. At first glance this may sound selfish, but in reality ...

by Anne Nugent Guignon, RDH, MPH
[email protected]

You can’t possibly take care of others until you take care of yourself. At first glance this may sound selfish, but in reality, how can we provide optimal patient care when our necks and backs are screaming for a break, or our hands ache every time we pick up a mouth mirror?

Since most hygienists are female, this column is focused on putting ourselves at the top of the totem pole. Women are conditioned from birth to be nurturers and put everyone else’s needs before their own. We’re taught to soothe crying infants, feed hungry puppies, cajole pouty teens, and keep our mouths shut when a doctor or coworker is unhappy. These behaviors are particularly reminiscent of June Cleaver, the bubbly mother in the 1960s TV program “Leave it to Beaver.”

June, a stay-at-home mom, didn’t balance a job with family responsibilities, unlike over 60% of today’s American women. She wore pretty dresses, baked cakes, and catered to the every whim of her husband and sons, never uttering a word about her own needs.

In 2009 the number of women exceeded the number of men in the nation’s workforce. Last year nearly 67% of women in the workforce had attended college or earned a degree, a statistic that encompasses the basic educational requirements of dental hygienists. Today, more women work in the education/health care segment of the workforce than any other industry.

Even though most dental hygienists juggle home and clinical responsibilities with amazing finesse, like other women we often put our needs on the back burner. At the end of the workday, way too many of us are running on empty due to the extensive physical and mental stress we put on our bodies. Way too many of us chalk up the pain to the rigors of dental hygiene. No one will ever pay us enough to work in pain or to develop a workplace-related injury.

Last June I met a remarkable woman at the ADHA meeting in Nashville from Bozeman, Montana, named Amber Sharp. Amber has practiced for 15 years and was experiencing significant back and neck pain by 3 p.m. every day, along with daily tension headaches. She was looking for healthy practice options that would allow her to continue supporting herself and her daughters.

Amber has worn magnification loupes for over a decade and was on a mission to select a safe, comfortable operator stool. After testing all of the options at the meeting, she chose a modified English saddle made with memory foam and covered in a special antimicrobial fabric called Silvertex. We made plans to have dinner in September when I was going to be in Montana.

A couple of days before my flight to Montana, Amber and I connected to finalize our plans. She told me she had been using her saddle stool for six weeks and said it was providing optimal postural support for her core, but now she had neck pain. Since her sitting posture had changed, Amber was curious to find out why her neck pain had increased. Rather than try to make an uneducated guess from a distance, I decided to meet Amber at her clinical office.

The source of her neck pain was obvious to me as soon as I looked at her loupes. The declination angle had been set incorrectly years ago, and her new seating posture forced her to flex her neck even more in order to see through the oculars. Amber’s loupes were over 10-years-old, so she decided to update with a new pair. The measurements were taken in her clinical office, which assured her that her new loupes would be part of her healthy practice system. The next step was to obtain a portable headlight.

The benefits of Amber’s saddle are obvious to her 15-year-old daughter, who is reaping the benefits of a mom who is less irritable, doesn’t need daily massages, and is not battling a daily headache and a body full of painful trigger points. Amber says she is still tired at times but not as miserable anymore.

Amber finally put her needs first, and she and her family are reaping the benefits. Her patients, doctors, and coworkers are also winning. She is actively working on creating a healthy clinical comfort zone, one that will allow her to practice in safety and comfort for many more decades.

At this time of year, so much focus goes toward taking care of everyone else. Amber and I urge you to turn your attention to your own needs. Self-preservation is not selfish; it is a kindness that every one of us deserves. Treat yourself with respect, and remember that the best gift you can give those who love you is to take care of yourself first.

Happy holidays!

Anne Nugent Guignon, RDH, MPH, provides popular programs, including topics on biofilms, power driven scaling, ergonomics, hypersensitivity, and remineralization. Recipient of the 2004 Mentor of the Year Award and the 2009 ADHA Irene Newman Award, Anne has practiced clinical dental hygiene in Houston since 1971.

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