by Cathy Hester Seckman, RDH
If each of you reading this could have a career — and a life — as engaging and fulfilling as this woman's career and life, you would count yourself a truly happy person.
Myrna Dooley of Medina, Ohio, graduated from Ohio State University's second dental hygiene class in 1947. Fifty-six years later, she's still working two to four days a week and loving every minute of it.
I met Myrna on a soft summer day. We sat on her screened porch, drinking tea and nibbling on blueberry muffins made that morning by Hugh, her husband of 52 years. Outside, bumblebees and hummingbirds busied themselves in her riotous flowerbeds. She talked about the children she and Hugh have sent out into the world, and about the joy she gets from looking after the dental needs of her family, neighbors, and friends. She mentioned her years as director of the local Red Cross swim program, and more years as a Mary Kay cosmetics consultant.
Myrna Dooley is a woman who surrounds herself with the things she loves, and wrings every ounce of use and enjoyment from them.
"I believe in positive affirmations, positive thinking. I always expect good results, and that's what's made me successful, in my work and in my life.
"My whole life has been based on the gifts I've been given," Myrna believes. "If I don't use them, I'm abusing what the Lord gave me."
From the time she was a child in Columbus, Myrna knew she had a gift for serving people. "I always thought I wanted to be a nurse. I even had a nurse's uniform that I got with box tops." Her father died before she graduated from high school, and an uncle took an interest in her education.
"My uncle, Dr. Harold Brown, was a dentist in Pomeroy, Ohio, and he wanted to send me to Ohio State University for their new hygiene program. 'What,' I asked him, 'is a dental hygienist?'"
Going to OSU turned out to be a good decision, because she liked hygiene right away. "I decided that if someone else was paying for it, I'd better be the best student I could be. And I kid you not, a porte polisher is all we had."(For those too young to know, a porte polisher is a handle with a hole at the top for a flat orangewood wedge. Before powered handpieces and prophy paste, a hygienist would use the instrument to apply damp pumice to the teeth, polishing each tooth manually with long, smooth, scraping motions.)
Myrna had to go to Cleveland, two hours away, for board exams, and no one bothered to tell her she should bring her own patient.
"I literally walked the streets in my hygiene uniform to find a patient. 'Hi, I'm a dental hygienist, and I'm looking for someone who will let me clean their teeth so I can pass my state board exam. Would you help me out, and may I look in your mouth?' I did find someone eventually. The first time I used an electric handpiece was the day I took that test."
Myrna moved to Cincinnati for her first job, earning $50 a week for 40 hours at a periodontist's office. "I thought I'd start there, and learn more about periodontics. He 'allowed' me to polish teeth and teach tooth brushing. I stayed a year, then found a job that allowed me to practice dental hygiene."
For entertainment, Myrna performed with a water ballet at the YWCA where she lived. "We did shows for years at the Cincinnati Y. It was loads of fun." She was in charge of the Young Adult Group for the YWCA and YMCA, and it was at a youth camping weekend that she met Hugh.
"I really lucked out. Hugh has a strong, quiet faith, and everything he does is geared to our family. It was Lent when we met, and I went to church every morning, saying, 'Lord, tell me if this is the right guy or not.'"
Hugh, a retired chemical dependency counselor, arrived home from his morning swim halfway through our interview, and offered this comment: "She cleaned my teeth before she'd go out with me."
He was the right guy, needless to say, and they married and moved to upper New York State. Myrna stayed home for the next 10 or 12 years. "I felt very strongly that if I could stay home with my children, I should. Once in a while I'd pick up an evening selling job, but mostly I was home. My memories of that time are of love, fun, teaching, discipline, mealtimes, laundry, work, and all varieties of pets. We had eight living children (and an angel we will someday meet) in 101/2 years."
Myrna has been fortunate, she says, to see so many of her children following her own interests in their careers. Four are in health professions, and one made a career out of water sports. Betty is a nurse; Debbie is a speech, occupational, and massage therapist; John is a product manager; Kathleen is a flight attendant; Joe is a retired Navy Seal and now works with radioactive materials; Mary is a hygienist; Patty is a chiropractic assistant; and Tim is a retired Marine pilot and now an air marshal.
There are 15 grandchildren.
The young family moved from the Finger Lakes region of New York to Medina, Ohio, in the late 1950s. "When my youngest was five years old, I went back to work as a hygienist one day a week, and gradually beefed up the recalls until I was working full-time. I started at $32 a day, and thought that sounded right."
She worked for the same dentist for more than 20 years, and is now working two to four days a week for a husband-wife dental team.
"Dental hygiene is still an integral part of my life," Myrna says firmly. "In my job now, I've put together everything I know, and I have fun with it. At this stage of my life I can use humor and get by with it. I'll throw the back of my hand up to my forehead very theatrically —'Oh! You haven't been flossing?! Oh, no!!'
"I had a teen-ager with grunge just the other day. He'd been one of my Cub Scouts. I had to get to him somehow, so I said, 'If I was your girlfriend, I wouldn't kiss you for anything.'
"I've always been extremely detailed in perio education. I'm very steeped in perio. Every patient of mine gets an education as to the health of their tissues. I try to get them to visualize bacteria. I hit them big time on diet and nutrition. I use words, pictures, pamphlets, models, anything to catch their interest and get them hooked. It can be so much fun!
"As dentistry has evolved, I've brought my patients to understand that dentists and hygienists don't take care of their teeth, they do."
Myrna feels it's very important to establish a personal connection with her patients. Some of them, after all, have been depending on her for more than 30 years. There are lots of front-desk hugs, lots of picture exchanges, and lots of shared history.
"The patients hear about my family, and I hear about theirs. It's important for them to be relaxed, and to know that I'm interested in them. The whole process is about the patient, but sometimes the patient needs to know who you are, too."
Besides her extraordinary commitment to her dental hygiene career, Myrna has a second, 14-year career as a cosmetics consultant. "The family calls my van the Jewelry Wagon because of all the diamonds I've earned. I tell them, 'When I'm gone you can gather up all the rings, bracelets, and earrings I earned in my Mary Kay career and say, 'Look at all that gaudy, awful jewelry. I'll take some!'"
"Being a Mary Kay consultant has been fun, and has given me personal growth and financial success. A facial can mean a lot to a woman in terms of positive affirmations. It gives her an opportunity to grow within herself."
She also serves as a lector and Eucharistic minister at her church, works with a county theatrical group, and tends her garden of flowers, vegetables, and herbs. In the past, she's been a Red Cross swim director, a den mother, Scout leader, member of the parish and liturgy councils, and a volunteer for the United Way.
In the last few years, Myrna and Hugh have made a retirement hobby out of visiting their far-flung children and grandchildren. "I tell people that I seem to have developed mountain-itis and ocean-itis. By the time we visit one in Moab, one in Albuquerque, and one in California, we've seen quite a bit of the country and many of the national parks. I love going out west, and I can't wait to go back."
Vacations and hobbies aside, what Myrna still loves more than anything is working as a hygienist. "I'm awed," she says, "by what I've had the chance to do in my career. The friends you make in a health care profession are phenomenal.
"I tell young hygienists what an opportunity they have to change people's lives. There are so many choices now. You can talk about bonding, orthodontics, bleaching; you can help them change their diet and health habits; you can be an influence in their whole lives.
"I don't understand burnout. I simply love hygiene. I really love to know I'm doing something to benefit people. I have been truly blessed in my life, and I give praise and thanks to the Lord every day."
Cathy Hester Seckman, RDH, is a frequent contributor who is based in Calcutta, Ohio.