Most of us have at least one horror story about our college years. Dental hygiene is a challenging program under the best of circumstances, but add a little stress and it becomes a time to survive and then forget. My college years were no different, and when I graduated I pledged to leave town and never return. It was almost as if avoiding the city could erase the memories of my trials.
I recently had the opportunity to attend the Idaho Conference on Health Care, which meant I would once again set foot on the Idaho State University campus. When I discussed this dilemma with some online colleagues, it became apparent that none of us actually practice the methods we were taught in college. We had gone beyond glassy smooth surfaces and hand exploring every millimeter of tooth structure. Our focuses had turned to biofilm disruption and creating an oral environment favorable for total body health. My ego kicked into full gear, and I realized I could return as a changed person. I had moved beyond my initial education. My pompous moment was short-lived.
I e-mailed the associate professor who had been my academic advisor and asked her if I could visit the clinic and talk with the department chair while I was on campus. She replied that would be an excellent idea, and added that I would be interested in some of the new features. The clinic now included two endoscopes, RAT perio charting, a digital pano machine, and Web access to look up health histories. It seems the education at Idaho State had changed to stay current with research and technology.
My parents live in Idaho, where my high school and college are located, so traveling there is a sort of going-home adventure. I boarded a plane in California on a sunny, 80-degree afternoon. Less than two hours later, I walked into a 35-degree snowstorm. Suddenly I remembered why I moved to Napa - I don’t like driving in snow. I immediately missed green grass and visible lines on the freeway. It seems one loses the knack for blind driving when one doesn’t practice regularly.
On my visit to ISU I realized that some situations always cause some anxiety. “Nervous” only began to describe my feelings as I walked into the dental science building and made my way to the office of Kathleen Hodges, RDH, MS, the chair of the dental hygiene department. Ms. Hodges had been the senior clinical coordinator during my time at ISU, and my hands shook as much on this visit as they had on any previous visits I had made to her office. Even though this visit wasn’t about my progress or to discuss my attitude, my nerves didn’t care, and my brain forgot almost every question I had prepared for the interview. (I have got to start writing things down.)
Every instructor I encountered in the hallway not only recognized me, but seemed happy to see me. Time must have erased their memory of all the drama and stress I caused them. Maybe it was because I had looked at pictures online before my visit, but I swear that professors at ISU do not age or change. They all looked exactly the same to me. In fact, it brought a smile to my lips to see one of my favorite instructors struggling with the copy machine - a scene I saw almost weekly during my college years.
Talking with Ms. Hodges about the challenge of educating dental hygienists to enter the real world as quality practitioners was enlightening. While ongoing research continues to change the theories of health-care delivery, the fundamentals remain constant. The real world may call for graduates skilled at digital radiographs, powered instrumentation, and computerized periodontal charting. Yet none of these skills can be acquired without first mastering the fundamentals. It would be difficult to remove biofilm from the fluting of a premolar without learning tooth morphology and dental anatomy. Microultrasonic scaling would be very difficult to learn if a student had not used a hand instrument first. A delicate balancing act is necessary to teach both the traditional skills and stay up-to-date with technology.
Over the next couple of days my nerves subsided. Being back in the academic world was exciting, and I realized just how much I missed being in the company of scholars. Nostalgia took over and it felt good to be home, even if home was accompanied by lousy weather. Pride for my alma mater led me to buy pens for my children with the ISU logo on them, but pure thriftiness kept me from buying myself an overpriced sweatshirt. After spending a couple of days with my parents, I could actually visualize myself building a home on the family spread and moving back.
My visit ended and I boarded the plane for California. Satisfied with my accomplishments during the trip, my plan was to sleep and not worry about anything for the two-hour ride. The woman next to me started to talk about her grandchildren, and I pretended to listen. Just as I was about to drift into dreamland, her words caught me by surprise. She said, “I love to visit my son. He and his family live in the house where we raised our children.” Then she added, “But that isn’t my home anymore.”
It is safe to practice exactly as we were taught in college. It is even helpful sometimes to pick up the old textbook and reacquaint ourselves with its lessons. We cannot, however, accept only those lessons as truth and not move on. The basics are essential, but not the entire truth. One does not become an Olympic gymnast without ever standing on a balance beam.
Research and evidence-based decision-making must continue in order to shape our practice. Probably the most important lesson we learn in our education is critical thinking. Seeking truth, even when it does not completely agree with our previous teachings, will take our profession further than if we hold on to every detail and idea from our initial education.
As I looked into the sea of taillights illuminating before me in the four solid lanes of traffic, I experienced a feeling of calm that I had not felt in days. Knowing there were green hills and vineyards around me brought a smile to my lips. This was my home now. Nothing requires me to forget my roots or shun those from my past. Without those beginnings, I would be a different person today. Moving forward and taking chances is far more rewarding than standing still. Remember the lessons you were taught in college. Use the skills you acquired there to push your career and our profession forward. Most importantly, honor those who gave their time and energy to educate you by continually learning and implementing new lessons into your practice. Return to your roots once in a while, but just remember where home is now.
Lory Laughter, RDH, BS, practices in Napa and Sonoma, Calif., in both general and periodontal offices. She is a partner of Dental IQ, a team committed to arranging quality continuing education opportunities for Northern California. Through her involvement with Dental Hygienists against Heart Disease and other organizations, she hopes to bring a total health concept to the dental practice. You may contact Lory at [email protected].