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Mentor of the Year

April 1, 2009
Philips Oral Healthcare, maker of Sonicare, has announced its 2009 Mentor of the Year, Toni Siegrist Adams, RDH, MA, of Rocklin, Calif.
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by Cathy Hester Seckman, RDH

Philips Oral Healthcare, maker of Sonicare, has announced its 2009 Mentor of the Year, Toni Siegrist Adams, RDH, MA, of Rocklin, Calif. Toni's clinical hygiene career lasted from 1973 to 1999, but her biggest influence on the field has come since then, in her mentoring of countless members of the dental hygiene profession.

Picture a timid 4-year-old girl clutching her mother's hand as they walk into a large health-care facility in Weisbaden, Germany, in 1949. Her mother, an Air Force wife, was also carrying a baby, and it was family checkup day. The little girl was Toni Adams, and she was terrified.

“For some reason, we had to go to a lab just before we went to the dental office. I saw the techs using Bunsen burners, and I got it into my 4-year-old head that when we went to the dental office, they would put fire in my mouth.”

That would be Toni's first dental experience, and you can imagine how well it went. The dentist tried hand-over-mouth-and-nose (standard practice back then), but it was useless. Toni's mother heard her crying, but wasn't allowed to go to her (also standard practice then). Toni didn't have any dental treatment that day, or for years afterward, and she has carried a terrifying memory for 60 years. It's a wonder she ended up in dental hygiene, but aren't we all glad she did?

Toni has not only mentored me, her nominator for this award, but many other people. As Cate Grater of Toronto, Canada, points out, “Toni has been a huge unknowing mentor for me. I think there's a very good possibility that she doesn't even know the influence she's had on a good many people. And that is so endearing. I just adore Toni. She is one of my favorite people of all time.”

Anne Guignon, a long-time friend, adds, “Toni's writing, speaking, and continued commitment to dental hygiene are and will continue to impact many, many in our profession for years to come. Toni is a mentor to the core, and she is an inspiration because of her unwillingness to walk away from a profession after she lost her ability to practice clinical dental hygiene. All of us in the profession can learn much from this remarkable woman.”

Living all over the globe

People who hear Toni's life story are always astounded. Raised in a military family, she has lived in 20 cities in nine states and three countries. “It's not all good, though,” she's quick to say. “I wouldn't change my life, but sometimes I do wish I had roots. When people ask where I'm from, the answer is always, “I'm from the Air Force.”

Still, it seems an exciting and exotic way to grow up. She was born in Texas, but didn't stay there long. Besides living at military bases all over the United States, Toni, her parents, and her brother Louis spent several years in Germany and Turkey.

“My first memories of life are in Germany. We lived in a huge duplex with five stories. I learned German easily from local people who worked for us. When I was five years old, I would translate for my mother when we went shopping.”

Toni spent her junior high years in Adana, Turkey, while her father worked at Inçirlik Air Base. Toni and her brother attended school with 18 other students in a Quonset hut where one teacher taught grades 1 through 8.

“There was no on-base grocery store when we first got there, and we couldn't shop locally because the vendors didn't have refrigeration. So we ate in the base mess hall. I loved the mess hall because there were big sectioned trays instead of plates. You could put each kind of food in its own section, and they wouldn't mix together. See, I was compulsive way back then.”

The family suffered some culture shock in Turkey. “It's an ancient country steeped in history. Adana was situated on a river and Romans had built the only bridge that crossed it. But the country and most of its people were very poor, and seeing their struggles made us count our blessings. Today, Turkey has advanced and become a popular tourist destination. I'd like to return and see it through adult eyes.”

Toni was back in the states for high school, and graduated in Valdosta, Ga., in 1963. The family soon moved to Denver, and Toni entered the University of Denver. “I had no plan, but I loved college. Back then, women could either be nurses, teachers, or social workers, so I majored in education, but I was really clueless. I loved a speech class I took, so then I became a speech major, but I had no idea what to do with it.”

Toni had to drop out of college after two-and-a-half years because her father retired and the family moved to Dayton, Ohio.

“I found a job as a bookkeeper in an advertising agency. I told my father I either wanted to join the Peace Corps or be a stewardess — that's what flight attendants were called then. He said I'd already served my country enough by moving all over the place with him, so I should just enjoy myself. I began working for Pan American Airlines in 1967.”

After training in Florida, Toni was stationed in San Francisco. She spent the next few years flying all over the South Pacific and the Far East.

“My mother used to say I flew into Hawaii more often than they drove into Dayton. About half our trips were R&R flights into and out of Vietnam. That was gratifying, but it was also difficult and hazardous to take people back to war. Every time we landed in Vietnam it was through fire, but we didn't know that at the time. In the beginning we would go to hospitals and visit for a few hours. We'd take milk and ice cream, if we had them left over. After a while we couldn't go anymore because it was too dangerous.”

Though she was glad for the experience, Toni has some doubts about those years.

“I've often regretted that I wasn't more mature, so I could offer them more. We were so young that I don't think we grasped the implications of it. Still, we did something.”

Introduction to dental hygiene

The next stage of Toni's life began when she met the guy in the apartment across from hers. His name was John Adams, and it wasn't long before they were married. Because of Toni's Pan American job, they were able to honeymoon in Rome and Barcelona for three weeks on $500.

“After we got home from our honeymoon, I decided to quit the airline because I didn't want to be away from home so much. I went to San Jose State University and completed the prerequisites for nursing school, but I also applied to the dental hygiene program at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, Calif. I was fortunate to be accepted at Foothill, and I ultimately chose hygiene because the hours and working conditions seemed better for starting a family.”

After graduation, her first job was with a dentist who actually hired her when she was seven months pregnant.

“He was a nice guy and a fabulous dentist, one of the best I ever knew. I worked the day before my son, Derek, was born, and ever since then I've had a good piece of advice for pregnant hygienists: ‘When your patient can feel the baby kick, it's time to stop working.'”

Her second son, Sean, came along a few years later, and Toni continued to work. In 26 years of clinical practice, she worked in a small general practice, a perio office, a nonprofit clinic, and a large group practice. She also did some temp work, and went on her share of interviews.

“One dentist conducted our interview while he was working on a patient. He couldn't even take the trouble to get up to talk to me. He asked how long I'd been at my last job, and when I said eight years he said, ‘I wish I could get a hygienist to stay that long.' But it was pretty easy for me to see why he couldn't.

“I mostly worked for good people,” she recalls. “I loved clinical hygiene, and developing relationships with patients and co-workers. That was the heart of it. And in most places, the staff was like family. It ripped me apart to leave each one.”

In 1998, after years of ignoring numbness in her hands, Toni had carpal tunnel release surgery on both hands. She was able to go back to work, but then began to have pain at the base of one thumb.

“I was in so much pain. I wore splints at night, and took over-the-counter anti-inflammatories, but it was osteoarthritis. The cartilage was gone, and that's what did me in. The doctor told me, ‘You just wore out your hands.'”

She ultimately had three more hand surgeries, including bilateral “sushi procedures” in which ligaments were stripped from her forearm, rolled up, and put in place of the deteriorated cartilage and damaged bone. “They said it would fix me right up, but it didn't. The pain has come back, and the future is uncertain.”

Anyone forced by injury to leave clinical hygiene faces a painful adjustment period. Some leave the field entirely, but others find a way to stay involved with dental hygiene. Toni was determined to remain involved.

“I had always been interested in the field of communication, and I hoped I could apply that to dental hygiene as a speaker and writer. I decided to get a bachelor's degree in communication studies at San Jose State University. I finished in three semesters, and shortly after that we moved to Rocklin, Calif. Then I entered the communication studies graduate program at California State University Sacramento.”

During her five years of master's study, she focused on health, intercultural, and instructional communication.

As she studied, she continued to be a significant part of the dental hygiene community. She maintained national and local membership in ADHA, accumulated continuing-education credits, and attended as many dental hygiene conferences as she could afford. She published several articles in RDH magazine, and began presenting CE courses on communication. She continues to be a regular contributor to the AmyRDH list online, mentoring hygienists of all ages.

For her master's project, Toni wrote a communication handbook for dental hygienists. She hopes to publish this book as a resource for students, instructors, and practicing hygienists.

For the immediate future, Toni plans to spend more time writing and speaking, and she'll also be happy to have more free time with her family. Her parents, Louis and Doris Siegrist, live in Las Vegas. Son Derek and his wife Anya live in North Carolina with their 4-year-old daughter Katya, and son Sean lives in the San Francisco Bay area.

On her status as a Mentor of the Year, Toni says, “I am deeply honored that Cathy thought enough of me to write such a beautiful letter and place my name in nomination for this award. Her words touched me deeply. But to win is beyond belief.

“I think mentoring is really just being a good friend and, like friendship, is reciprocal. Several people over the years have referred to me as a mentor, but the funny thing is that I thought THEY were mentoring ME!”

Friend and fellow hygienist Patti DiGangi explains why so many in our profession view Toni as a mentor.

“Toni Adams is the type of person who doesn't necessarily plan to be a mentor, yet assumes that role just by being herself. Her wit, intelligence, demeanor, and quiet, effective communication are all something to emulate. I know my life is richer for knowing and learning from her.”

Toni can be contacted at [email protected] or through her Web site,

Cathy Hester Seckman, RDH, thought about nominating Toni as Philips Sonicare Mentor of the Year for a long time before finally sitting down to do it. Here is part of the nomination letter.

I write to nominate Toni Adams, RDH, BA, and soon to be MA, for the 2009 Philips Sonicare Mentor of the Year Award. I've counted Toni as one of my best friends and mentors in hygiene since we met at an Under One Roof conference four years ago. Though we've only seen each other in person a few times, we e-mail and speak on the phone regularly. She has been my coach, compatriot, cheerleader, commiserator, and congratulator.

Toni's advice has been valued and welcomed. She continually challenges my preconceptions, not only in speaking, but in practicing – not only in dentistry, but in daily life. As a health communications scholar, Toni has insights few of us can match. Do I wonder how to handle my boss? I ask Toni. Can I decide how to converse with a program chairman about a speech? Toni will know. Is there a better way to handle a fellow committee member? Of course, talk to Toni about it.

Though she can no longer work clinically, Toni has refused to give up on dental hygiene. She is still, and will continue to be, a major contributor to the profession. I am honored to be her friend, and to consider her my mentor. I hope you will consider her as a Mentor of the Year.