Mentor of the Year

Philips Sonicare and RDH magazine recently announced the 2011 Mentor of the Year – Eileen Cacioppo, RDH, BLS, MS, of Davenport, Iowa.

Apr 1st, 2011
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Philips Sonicare, RDH magazine select Iowa hygienist as the 2011 recipient of award

by Cathy Hester Seckman, RDH

Philips Sonicare and RDH magazine recently announced the 2011 Mentor of the Year – Eileen Cacioppo, RDH, BLS, MS, of Davenport, Iowa.

As hygienists, most of us see ourselves as teachers. We educate our patients, our co-workers, our bosses, our families, and each other. Eileen Cacioppo, the ninth Mentor of the Year, sees herself as a teacher in a wider sense – a much wider sense.

"That's our heritage, isn't it, to go out and educate the public? That was part of Dr. Fones' vision. I feel very strongly about that. Any volunteer time I'm available, I go out and do a presentation."

She has presented to her Quad Cities IDHA component, but she is also available to do a program for anyone who asks her, whether it's a nursing staff, a health or disease support group, or educators.

"Once I spoke to a group, and that evening a man called me from 30 miles away. 'My wife was in your class this morning,' he said, 'and she hasn't stopped talking about it. I think you need to come and talk to my Kiwanis Club.' I did, and it was absolutely delightful. I got a standing ovation.

"You know that story about Milton Berle? He said if he opened the refrigerator and the light hit him in the face, he could do a 10-minute monologue on the spot. I've never been real good with the spotlight, but I have no trouble doing presentations."

When she speaks to the general public, she tries to think on her feet and answer questions as they come up. "My talks have to do with why people have to maintain their dental health in relation to general health. I start with the oral-systemic link and go from there. People are interested not in just home care, but in products, and which are better to use. Everyone is looking for the magic bullet, so it is nice to compare options."

Throughout her hygiene career, Eileen has followed her convictions. Besides working in private practice, she taught in two different dental assisting programs; worked for the Clinton, Iowa, Job Corps; was the first dental hygiene educator in the Cedar Rapids School District; was a dental health educator for three U.S. Army clinics; and served as Dental Consultant, Head Start, U.S. Public Health Service, District VII.

For the Job Corps, she wrote an instrument manual for dental assisting students. Part of her job for the school district was developing a dental health objectives manual for teachers and parent groups. Along the way she held licenses in four different states and earned a bachelor's degree in liberal arts and a master's degree in health education.

Falling into hygiene

She fell into her career after hearing about the first licensed hygienist in Iowa. She interviewed the woman while still in high school.

"My only thought had been to be a teacher, but after I talked to this woman, I wanted to be like her," Eileen said. "I graduated from the University of Iowa in 1964."

She worked in Cedar Rapids for a few years, then married and moved to Colorado Springs, Colo., when her husband, Dr. Anthony Cacioppo, returned from Vietnam. He was stationed at Fort Carson, and Eileen worked in Army clinics there. She also devised a volunteer dental assistant program for officers' wives. The couple later lived in Illinois and Michigan, then eventually settled in Davenport. For the next 25 years, she worked full-time in private practice with Larry Squire, DDS, and was a radiology instructor in the dental assisting program at nearby Blackhawk Community College.

Eileen credits her own mentors with giving her a good start to a long and satisfying career. "There are probably not many women alive who wouldn't say their mother was their first mentor. Mine was a teacher, and she believed in education for education's sake. I don't remember a year when she wasn't taking a class. I grew up feeling a lifetime of learning ahead. I've always taken more than enough CE courses. If something sounds interesting, I'll go, whether I need credits or not. I just love to learn more. I still read all the journals and newsletters."

Her next mentor was the director of her dental hygiene program, Helen Newell. "I looked up to her in awe. She was a strong guide, an independent woman. She said, 'You will work one day a year to pay for your professional dues. That's vitally important.' And so that's what I've always done."

In her professional associations, Eileen's third mentor was former ADHA president Marjory Thornton. "Marjory was very active at the state and local level in Iowa, even into her 70s and 80s. She was ADHA president, and she was their parliamentarian forever. She loved being active and giving back. When she died at 92, I did her memorial at our state meeting."

Following the examples of the strong women in her life, Eileen has always supported and worked for the ADHA. "Within a year of graduation I was on the Iowa Dental Hygiene Association's Board of Trustees and served as president in 1989-90. I've been so very active in Quad Cities that the younger girls call me 'Mother Hygiene.'"

As a member of the Quad Cities' Health Initiative, Smiles For All, Eileen spent a year presenting oral health programs around the Quad Cities in Iowa and Illinois to caregiver support groups. Following up on that project, in 2009 she was invited to present a paper, "Raising Awareness of the Need for Oral Health Care in the Compromised Adult," at the Iowa Governor's Conference on Aging. The conference was later canceled for lack of funding.

In 1999, IDHA presented Eileen with the first Distinguished Service Award. In 2009, she was named Iowa Dental Hygienist of the Year.

Eileen also served three three-year terms on the Iowa Dental Board and was a Central Regional Dental Testing Service (CRDTS) examiner, covering 40 states.

Outside of her profession, Eileen has worked on several community projects. She was a member of the Governor's Consortium Advisory Committee for Iowa Tobacco Prevention; the Iowa-Illinois Health Care Alliance Project Review Committee for five counties; the Board of Directors of the Michigan Lung Association for five counties; and the Board of Directors for the Girl Scout Association for seven counties.

When did Eileen become a mentor herself? She doesn't remember a specific first time, but she does remember describing an early mentoring experience when she was installed as state DHA president. "It's such a great feeling you get, when an ex-patient comes up to you and says, 'I'm majoring in dental hygiene.'"

The testimonial from her nominator

Linda Rowe of Davenport, who nominated Eileen for this award, calls Eileen a "very public, knowledgeable, and thoughtful face for dental hygiene. I tease her that it is all her fault I have served numerous positions for the IDHA. If Eileen says you could or should do something, it is hard to turn her down because she is just not wrong about assessing abilities. I hope I can develop half the savvy she has in such abundance."

Linda met Eileen through the Quad Cities component in the mid-1980s. "After she'd been president of the component," Linda recalls, "she approached me about running for office. I said, "Uh – okayyyyy." My husband encouraged me too; he's very involved with community events. Things snowballed, and when Eileen became state president I said I could run for recording secretary. That way when we went back and forth to state meetings (a two- or three-hour drive), she could drive and I could write.

"One of Eileen's skills as an ADHA activist is her ability to analyze a situation from a broader perspective. She's always able to spot the talent best suited to a particular task. Much of her work is behind the scenes. She knows who to talk to, who needs to write letters, who is the best person for the job."

Linda, who spent 17 years in a periodontal practice and now works four days a week in a general practice, has paid Eileen's mentorship forward. "Once at the perio office, I was able to talk to a hygienist who had just moved to town and was dropping off a resume. I encouraged her to attend our next component meeting for the networking opportunities, and now she's our placement chairman."

Another of Eileen's friends, hygienist Nancy Miller of Rockford, Iowa, met Eileen at an IDHA annual session. "I came alone and was very green. Eileen invited me to go out to eat with members of her component after the House Session. Her welcoming personality immediately made me feel so at home. I knew I had found a group I would identify with."

She believes Eileen is "the E.F. Hutton of dental hygiene. When she speaks, everyone listens, in the community, in the associations, on the dental board." Eileen, she says, "always seems to be able to bridge the gap (between dentists and hygienists), and that doesn't mean she gives in – she just finds common ground and facilitates a compromise or helps the dentists see a different angle."

According to Miller, Eileen leads by example. "She doesn't criticize or demean any young people who start in our organization. She is a nurturer, so she's like a mom or mentor to all of us. Her DH component is the largest in the state because she is so fun to be around and makes everyone feel good. Eileen sets an example for all of us."

Eileen's involvement with her patients, says Miller, goes beyond the traditional practice of dental hygiene. "Beyond just ministering to the needs of patients in private practice, she will present programs on oral health to any organizations that invite her. I doubt that she has ever turned anyone down. She's so comfortable in a group that it's always like she's just having a conversation with you."

Still paying it forward

Speaking of her fellow hygienists, Eileen says, "I try to offer educational resources in the form of informative speakers for our component meetings on a vast array of health topics, to alert them to an article or information they may not be aware of, to having physical props they can utilize for presentations themselves, so they don't have to feel they have to reinvent the wheel. I have counseled dozens of hygienists who are reluctant to even speak in their child's classroom, and given them ideas and tools with which to work. I hope I have impacted their decisions to involve themselves in our professional family and the general population. I also hope I have made a positive impact on the professional image of the hygienist through all my community presentations and involvement."

One thing she is especially proud of in her component work is a recommendation to help student hygienists. "A few years ago, when our component's treasury became very healthy, I suggested and facilitated a loan fund at each of our state's dental hygiene programs that could be used by one or more students needing financial aid in a hurry. We donated the money and let the individual colleges set up their own parameters – we didn't want to read any essays, etc. – we just wanted the money available for someone who needed to borrow short term for books, regional exams, or even to pay their electric bill. The college was responsible for collecting the loans so that someone else could use it too. None of us is so removed from our college years as to forget there could be lean times while trying to join this terrific profession."

Eileen retired from clinical hygiene three years ago when her husband was diagnosed with lung cancer, then died within a year. The two were frequent travelers with a passion for good food. Recently, she has begun traveling again with her sister. The two have been to Ireland and through New England, and they're making plans for the coming year.

Although she won't be returning to the hygiene operatory, Eileen intends to stay active. "I retired from my career, not my profession. I'm still volunteering. As long as an organization needs me, I'm available wherever there are oral health needs. I had fantastic mentors and I only hope in some way I am paying it forward."

Cathy Hester Seckman, RDH, is a frequent contributor based in Calcutta, Ohio. Besides working in a pediatric dental practice, Seckman is a prolific freelance writer, a book indexer, and a speaker on dental and writing/indexing topics. She can be reached at cathy@cathyseckman.com.

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