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Mentor of the year

April 1, 2007
Philips Oral Health Care, maker of Sonicare, and RDH magazine have announced the 2007 Mentor of the Year, Jane Balavage, RDH, BS.
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by Cathy Hester Seckman, RDH

Philips Oral Health Care, maker of Sonicare, and RDH magazine have announced the 2007 Mentor of the Year, Jane Balavage, RDH, BS. Balavage works for a periodontal practice in Forty Fort, Pa., and has just completed a term as president of the Pennsylvania Dental Hygienists’ Association.

For more information on nominating your mentor, visit www.rdhmag.comClick here to view parital list of mentors nominated.

Carrying an extra suitcase bulging with freebies and product samples, Jane Balavage was headed home from the national ADHA convention in 2004 when she was grounded in the Atlanta airport by bad weather.

“The airline decided to send us to a hotel for the night, so there we all were, complete strangers. One was a woman in her 80s. There was a young couple on their way to a funeral. One guy was a banker; another was an accountant. By the time we got to the hotel nothing was open but the bar, so I said, ‘Let’s all go in there.’ Everyone just followed me.

“We had a few drinks and started talking, complaining about the delay. One man said, ‘I don’t even have a toothbrush with me.’”

You can tell where this story is going, can’t you? Jane immediately upended her sample bag on a tabletop, and out poured a river of toothbrushes, floss, mouthwash, and other samples.

“Their eyeballs popped out,” she remembers gleefully. On the spot, Jane organized a trivia contest, with the samples as prizes. “What is a dental hygienist?” she asked the group of strangers. “What’s another word for gingiva?”

“They were so funny, and they tried so hard to win prizes, collaborating on answers. We stayed for hours, even the 80-year-old.”

One of Jane’s samples was a brand new power toothbrush, not even on the market yet. She didn’t really want to give it up, but she told the group it would be the grand prize. Everyone put a number in a hat, even the bartender, who won, and promptly burst out crying. She had recently been diagnosed with periodontal disease, and her dentist had told her to buy a good power brush, but she couldn’t afford one.

The next morning, Jane recalls, everyone headed back to the airport on a bus, wearing the same clothes, but with clean teeth. “They cheered me,” she says. “They said it was the best travel mishap they’d ever had. I went home with an empty bag, but we had so much fun, it was worth it.”

And there, says her friend Angie Yorina, RDH, is one of the reasons Jane has been named Mentor of the Year.

“Jane is always saving the day,” says Angie, who nominated her friend. “It’s what she does, over and over. In the spring of 2006, I planned an evening CE course for our local component, and the speaker was hospitalized that morning. I was at work. Everybody was at work, and I didn’t know what to do. I had visions of not being able to reach anyone to cancel. I called Jane. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said, ‘I’ll present a course.’

“She went home at lunchtime to get her laptop, then came back, worked until five, skipped supper, and presented a course on xylitol at 6:30. She’d given the course before, but this was so last-minute. Everyone got their credits, everyone loved it, and she was just amazing.”

Shortly after that presentation, Angie learned Jane had been dealing with breast cancer. She had a mastectomy a short time later.

“She never missed a beat,” Angie says. “The day before her surgery, she delivered flowers to me because I received my bachelor’s degree that weekend.”

The afternoon of her outpatient mastectomy, Jane met the visiting nurse in her driveway to help carry in supplies. Two days later, she cut grass, and a week later she took a CPR class, one-handed.

That was also the summer of Jane’s state presidency for PDHA. “It wasn’t bad,” she says. “I traveled that whole year, visiting components around Pennsylvania, but I didn’t need chemotherapy or radiation, so I didn’t have that to deal with. I had the support of the whole state, and it was fabulous. Their positive energy is what got me through it.” She was honored with a standing ovation at her last board meeting that year.

Not only did she visit components statewide, she gave a course to every component while she was there, just to add value to her visit. Not only did she give gifts to her officers and chairpersons, she gave them jewelry that she made herself. “I took apart some old jewelry and made pendants for each person based on their personality and colors. I just started creating. Everyone loved them, and I got lots of compliments. I didn’t know I knew how to do that, but now I’m kind of in the jewelry business.”

One of Jane’s other hobbies is playing the baritone horn, and therein lies another story.

“My Grandma Lottie was Polish, and I created a character based on her, Ludvina. Ludvina is sort of a Polish Carol Burnett, or Mary Poppins. It started when my niece, Katherine, wanted me to do a dental health presentation for her second-grade class. I thought, OK, I have to be creative with this. So I wore one of Grandma’s old dresses, and an apron she gave me. I had big bedroom slippers, and painted every toenail a different color. I took my horn and went to school.

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“The kids thought it was just hysterical. I talked about teeth, and said in the old country we didn’t have fancy toothbrushes like theirs, then I pulled out an old toilet brush. I played the ‘Beer Barrel Polka’ on my horn, and put words to it about teeth for the kids to sing. I demonstrated flossing with a rope and my toes. The kids had a great time.”

Ludvina has performed for years at local schools, at Girl Scout Jamborees, and for hygiene students at Luzerne County Community College, where Jane was a part-time adjunct clinical instructor for four years.

A 1976 graduate of Temple University’s associate degree hygiene program, Jane also graduated from Misericordia College with a bachelor’s degree in general studies. She worked first in private practice, then in a group practice, then for 23 years at Rural Health Corporation, a group of public health centers. Now she works for Dr. Charles Musto and Dr. Fred Bonaci in a periodontal implant specialty practice.

Jane has attended many national ADHA conferences, and has been to every Under One Roof conference except the first one. “I love UOR, it’s awesome. I get information at national conferences, expand on it, and then bring it to local hygienists.”

According to Angie, Jane regularly wins a PDHA award for continuing education hours accumulated per licensing period. In 2006, she had the third-highest number of hours. “When I went to UOR with Jane, I tried to be dedicated, but I sort of wanted to hang out at the pool, too. I got more than a dozen credits, but Jane got 19. No one can be as good as she can.”

Courses that Jane presents around Pennsylvania include topics such as xylitol, the menopausal woman, smoking cessation, diabetes and oral health, an oral fitness product review, and oral piercing (for which she wears temporary tattoos and realistic fake “piercings”).

Her goals for the future include presenting a course at UOR, and writing an article for RDH magazine. In the short term, she hopes to go to Russia and Poland with a People to People tour this summer.

The Mentor of the Year award is not her first award in hygiene. She was honored with the SunStar Butler/RDH Healthy Gums Healthy Life Award of Distinction in 2004, and was a recipient of the Pennsylvania Community Health Award from the PDHA in 2000. Also in 2000, she was awarded with an honorary membership in Sigma Phi Alpha for her community service. While in hygiene school, she won the Clark J. Hollister Award for Patient Education.

As a mentor, says her friend Angie, Jane “has proved again and again how her genuine and heartfelt kindness has touched others. She has a knack for accentuating the positives and bringing out the best in people, especially me. I strongly believe if others know about her, she could become a mentor for them as well. She has personally enriched my life.”

One thing that inspires Jane to reach out to others is her favorite book, “The Fred Factor,” by Mark Sanborn. “It’s about taking the ordinary and making it extraordinary,” she says. “It’s built on four principles: everyone makes a difference; everything is built on relationships; you must continually create value for others (which doesn’t have to cost a penny); and you can re-invent yourself regularly. That’s what I try to build my philosophy on.”

Editor’s note: Jane Balavage was nominated by Angie Yorina, RDH, BS, a resident of Wyoming, Pa. The comments below were part of her nomination and offer insight on the mentoring relationship between the two women.

As strange as it may seem, Jane started mentoring me even before I met her. While I was in dental hygiene school, my mother would tell me about her hygienist, Jane. Mother told me that I needed to contact Jane, because she was amazing. One of the stories that has stuck with me was how she visited nursing homes and taught the residents how to floss with a rope and her toes! Because most of the residents have trouble with vision and the presentation was unique, it worked like a charm. Mom laughed and told me she could see me doing things like that someday. Recently, I have visited nursing homes, adult day care centers, preschools, free medical clinics, and local libraries during toddler story-time - all while Jane mentors me.

Two years after graduation, I finally met Jane at a continuing education course presented by her. The topic was oral piercing and she wore tattoo stockings and sleeves, as she flaunted multiple realistic-looking piercings on her ears, nose, lips, eyebrows, and of course, tongue! I soon figured out this was my Mom’s hygienist! As with all of the courses she presents, you cannot help but leave with a plethora of information to help make you a better clinician.

I became involved with our local component and began to work closely with Jane. She is the secretary of Northeast Pennsylvania Dental Hygiene Association and has been during most of her profession of 30 years. She worked more than 20 years at a state health clinic and currently works full time in a periodontal office. Some call her the “Xylitol Queen.” She has also been trained in the smoking cessation program and continues to do presentations throughout the state.

I have known for quite some time how remarkable she is, but this past year has proven just how incredible she truly is. She is the president of Pennsylvania Dental Hygienists’ Association. She has done an outstanding job and received a standing ovation at the past meeting. She travels hundreds of miles for presentations and usually receives the award for the most continuing education credits obtained in two years.

She helped me tremendously this year, as I was president of our local component. Plus, I had the pleasure of traveling with her to Las Vegas in July. It proved to be another memorable experience as she taught me the art of networking during the RDH Under One Roof conference. She always possesses a friendly and professional attitude in such a fun-loving way. I have witnessed her take a room full of strangers and have them start brainstorming as they work together with the same enthusiasm she exemplifies.

She not only facilitates me to be a better hygienist, she makes me strive to be a better person. In the spring, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She did not miss a beat, as she was caring for others during this time. The day before her mastectomy, she delivered flowers to me because I received my bachelor’s degree that weekend! She faced cancer with the same attitude as she faces life.

I can share so many wonderful stories about her dedication and devotion toward her profession. But more importantly, there were so many times she proved again and again how her genuine and heartfelt kindness has touched others. She has a knack for accentuating the positives and bringing out the best in people, especially me. I strongly believe if others have the pleasure to read and know about her, she could become a mentor for them as well. She has personally enriched my life and others around her.

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 [email protected].