by Lory Laughter, RDH, BS
A career-long bout of boredorm left the author wondering who's to blame. The answer, she found, was within herself, but some important self-realizations emerged from the low point.
It's no secret I was bored with my career. Just ask anybody who spent more than 15 seconds discussing dental hygiene with me. For years I looked for someone or something to blame for my boredom. While I'm proud to say I found the answer, I'm not proud to say that I'm the one to blame. My dissatisfaction was not short lived. It began my junior year at Idaho State University, and continued until seven months ago.
I liked almost everything about college - classes that challenged me, professors who forced me to use my brain, and fellow students who took me on bar crawls. Our senior research project was fun rather than a chore for me. However, clinic was not my favorite place. I saw it as a chance to practice health assessment, teach, and learn from my patients, as well as an evil and necessary step towards graduation. My fellow students laughed at my preference for the library over "hands-on" opportunities. Non-surgical periodontal therapy was something to endure so I could get out into "my real world," where scaling ability would be secondary to quoting references. After all, what dentist doesn't dream day and night of hiring a great researcher?
During college I was forced to attend seminars, conventions, and numerous other CE opportunities. I was even expected to read professional journals and maintain SADHA membership, which, at the time was a financial stretch. Little did I realize that later, these activities would save my sanity, or at least help me maintain an appearance of sanity. My goal had always been to work part-time and finish my master's. Soon, I found myself working full-time and abandoning graduate school in order to pay the bills. Reality bites. My clinical skills were top notch and I worked hard to keep them that way, but the boredom began to take its toll. My membership in ADHA lapsed, as did most of my journal subscriptions. Seminars and conventions seemed out of reach financially, and, besides, time spent at CE was time I couldn't make money. Dental hygiene was no longer a career, it was work.
Moving to a larger state did not "fix" my boredom. Searching and interviewing until I found the two most progressive dentists with whom to work didn't cure me either. Complaining to family and friends was definitely not the answer, although I found it safer than complaining at the office. Sarcasm covered my disinterest in clinical practice, but didn't do much for my relationship with co-workers.
My answer came only after I took the time to seriously consider my options. I would be lying if I said this "break" was a conscious decision. It wasn't. I have a daily routine that includes checking my email first thing every morning. One morning my box held a message about a bill that would allow dental students who have completed their second year and passed the appropriate boards to practice as dental hygienists. The only thing more distressing than the idea of an underqualified person delivering periodontal care was my amazement that I was the only person in my office who didn't know about this bill. Why hadn't I been told? How did the dentist and assistants know this when I didn't? Was it a conspiracy to keep the information from hygienists? Just because I was paranoid didn't mean someone wasn't out to get me!
The answer: I didn't care enough to keep up on important issues. I renewed my ADHA membership online the same day.
Lesson learned: If you can't help with the solution, don't complain about the problem. My work did not suddenly become exciting, but I had a mission. I informed every patient, friend, and relative about the outlandish bill and gave them the governor's email address and fax number to express their outrage. Well, maybe they didn't feel outrage, but they were tired of listening to me gripe. I found the missing piece of my career - a cause.
My next lesson came in the form of a CE opportunity. I signed up for the event based on one presenter, and left with a desire to know more. Not only did I enjoy learning again, but the attitudes of those in attendance was contagious. Luckily, my less-than-positive attitude was alone in this environment. I spent my days with a roommate who became a much-needed gift in my career. Not only did she question my ideas, but she asked me to explain my reasons when we agreed. It was like arguing with my brother, only she didn't hit me when I got on her nerves. Once again, I felt challenged.
During the next six weeks, I attended two more conventions. Remembering there was more to dental hygiene than scaling, root planing, polishing and lecturing brought new spark to my career. I developed new friendships and rekindled old ones. My employer supported me getting out of my operatory and doing more. Amazingly, I started to care about my patients again. Instead of simply treating perio disease, I was treating people. Patients consist of more than a mouth with plaque! Health assessment and education consumed a larger chunk of each appointment.
Lesson learned: Satisfaction comes from reaching out and doing more. I had to look for it.
The need to network with people I admire became clearly defined as a concept. No longer did I seek out those who shared my ideas of discontent. Instead, I surrounded myself with professionals I admired. This was not an easy task for a shy person. I sought out people who were a step or more above me in both talent and motivation. Not only did I want to learn, I wanted a good argument now and then. It was no longer important for everyone to agree with me, just respect my ideas.
Study groups and professional organizations are now a focus in my career. There is only so much to be learned from the office. I question the dentist, and actually listen to the answers, but I also need other sources of information. While the doctor is up to date on the latest in restorative materials, fellow hygienists have taught me not to be judgmental and not to fear risk. My mentors have taught me that it is appropriate to act like a professional. Sarcasm and humor are not always appreciated.
Lesson learned: If you don't ask the question, you won't get an answer.
Reading has never been my favorite activity. While I knew there was much knowledge to be gleaned from professional publications, it was not a task I enjoyed. I got a big surprise. Putting a face to the authors and knowing what they are like in person made reading their work enjoyable. I'm not just reading written words, but learning from my mentors. Debating with the author takes a little more thought because it requires me to write down my thoughts, but it is fulfilling. I have been known to laminate articles to share with my patients. I highlight research articles and post them in the break room. I copy online research and leave it on the dentist's desk. While everyone may be tired of my endless sharing, I am having the best time ever in my career. Making a difference is my new goal.
Lesson learned: Boredom and learning are seldom in the same room.
My story is not unique. But I think it's a story we're often afraid to share. It's not easy to take ownership of our boredom or discontent, and the answers are not the same for everyone. It is not up to dentists, state boards, or the leaders in dental hygiene to move our profession forward. Each of us has the responsibility to do our part, and if my part includes humor, all the better. My lack of boredom is a personal victory. But I can only accept the reward by also accepting the blame.
Reality may bite, but nothing says I can't bite back. Just ask my brother.
Lory Laughter, RDH, BS, practices in Napa and Sonoma California in both general and periodontal offices. She graduated from Idaho State University and is a member of the Phi Kappa Phi honor society. Through her involvement with Dental Hygienists against Heart Disease and other organizations, Lory hopes to bring a total health concept to the dental practice.