82, and still loving it!

April 1, 2013
Pinning down a time to interview Aileen Blum was not easy. Between tennis, countless volunteer hours, and days of clinical hygiene, Aileen is busy.

Aileen Blum sustains her love of her profession


Aileen Blum, RDH, is still smiling after 51 years of practice.

Pinning down a time to interview Aileen Blum was not easy. Between tennis, countless volunteer hours, and days of clinical hygiene, Aileen is busy. A June 1951 graduate of Northwestern University in Illinois, Aileen is a very special hygienist, beloved by all in her current practice of 45 years.

"At 82 years old, I'm still doing what I've always loved. It doesn't get much better than that."

What a joyous burst of enthusiasm for all hygienists to emulate! Sixty-one years of clinical practice, and still the same excitement and love for sharing her knowledge and skills with her patients.

As a child, Aileen had dreams of becoming a pediatric dentist. With her tremendous love of math and science, she was well on her way. Her education began at the University of Illinois studying liberal arts and science at a time when young men were just coming home from the war and entering medical and dental school. A professor suggested that Aileen drop her engineering math classes and take a simple course load, leaving more space for the men. Aileen laughs as she retells the story, knowing that a woman today would never be discouraged that way. In 1948, Aileen learned of dental hygiene, a career option she had not previously heard of, and immediately applied to Northwestern University. She was accepted.

By 1951, Aileen had graduated from Northwestern and was a newlywed. She is proud to say that her dental hygiene career enabled her to support herself and her husband while he completed two more years of law school. While there are many aspects of hygiene that Aileen loves, the freedom and flexibility of hours enabled her tremendous longevity in a career for which she is still passionate. She initially worked full-time, but by the time she had a family, she worked only during school hours. Returning home each day to make lunch for her two boys granted her the blend she desired of career and family. For Aileen, family has always come first. She believes that hasn't changed during her 45 years of treating and educating multiple generations at the Old Orchard Professional Building.

Aileen believes in giving back to the community and has focused her free time on volunteering as much as possible. As a new graduate, she volunteered to clean children's teeth in a hospital setting as they suffered from debilitating diseases and tragic circumstances. With an immense love for children, Aileen spent years in the local schools teaching dental hygiene and nutrition and working with children with autism. With her passion for education, Aileen tutored in math and reading, trying to make difficult subjects fun and exciting. Now, at age 82, Aileen can be found spending hours as a volunteer at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, Illinois.

When asked what makes her love dental hygiene as much today as she did in 1951, Aileen speaks very passionately. It is her love of people that allows her to connect on so many levels – not just on the clinical level. Aileen believes in a full-body approach to dentistry. Though so much has changed over the years, she believes that excellent clinical skills are still required. Every appointment begins with a full head and neck exam. She has seen multiple areas of leukoplakia, oral cancers, and various disease states that require further diagnosis and treatment. Aileen is quick to note that cancers and decay rates are significantly reduced now that patients in her geographical area smoke less and reduce sugar intake in an effort to be more health conscious. At one time two-thirds of her patients were smoking, and now less than 10% continue to smoke.

While doing a thorough scaling and plaque removal is important, it is the daily education in home care and overall health that Aileen believes is her ultimate purpose. "It is no longer enough just to teach plaque removal techniques – today we must educate for overall health." Aileen was one of the first to study vitamin D and discover its importance to the body systemically. "We need daily sun exposure, but now we know about the damaging effects of the sun's rays, so we slather on sunscreens. We need to encourage our patients to get vitamin D in healthful ways, as well as maintain an overall balanced diet, limiting sugars and frequency. It is our job to truly listen to our patients and individualize treatment based on their needs, dentally and medically."

Treatment modalities were very different in the early 1950s. Aileen graduated without the use of ultrasonic scalers, which were not commercially available until 1958. She has since learned to use the ultrasonic scaler, but still believes that for her, hand scaling gives the best tactile sense. There were no sealants until the '60s, and while in her practice only the doctor applies them, Aileen is a huge supporter and sees tremendous value in their placement. Patients were treated with the practitioner standing, and to this day that is the way Aileen still does it. Gloves, masks, protective eyewear, and covered surfaces were not a routine part of the day either. Now she can't even imagine practicing without gloves. Fluoride was first introduced in the public water system when Aileen was in hygiene school. As part of her education, she was required to document and chart decay in local children. While many are still fighting the use of public fluoride, Aileen believes in its importance and has seen a tremendous reduction in decay rates. Today Aileen uses a selective treatment plan for fluoride based on patients' decay history. Her one wish is that the fluoride varnishes had a more pleasant texture so patients could truly enjoy the feel of their freshly cleaned and polished teeth. Initially practicing in a white, starched, long-sleeved dress, hose, nursing shoes, and a white cap, she finds today's colorful scrubs and sneakers a much more comfortable solution.

Dental offices and practice laws have also changed substantially. The new trend to allow assistants a more developed and expanded function list causes Aileen some serious concern. "I don't believe assistants should polish. I think they end up scaling a little or picking a little fleck of calculus off. I spent years learning to do a complete prophy and not all these assistants are even trained to polish." It is her belief that some dentists may be taking advantage of salary savings and requesting assistants to do more than they are legally trained and able to do. Aileen is concerned that over time, hygiene itself may lose credibility and hygiene employment may be harder to find.

Aileen has a fabulous work ethic and believes that all employees should share in the responsibilities of maintaining the office. Hygienists should "clean your own room, take care of your own areas, and stay on time. There are certain things you are supposed to do. Be respectful and get along well with people." Aileen believes that each member of the team is a reflection on the dentist he or she works with. Since it is the dentist's business, each member must have respect for the dentist and, ultimately, the decisions the dentist makes. Hygienists must make an effort to have a great relationship with the entire team to keep the day flowing, stress free, and enjoyable for all. "At 82 years old, I'm still doing what I've always loved. It doesn't get much better than that." RDH

Debra Viger, RDH, BHS, has 25 years of clinical dental hygiene, dental office management, and treatment coordination experience. Embracing a complete approach to efficient dental office operations, she successfully encourages offices to work at peak performance levels with a renewed sense of purpose and enthusiasm. Debra is the past president of McHenry County Dental Hygiene Society and past chair of continuing education. This unique perspective on the profession offers the greatest clinical outcome.

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