by Cathy Hester Seckman, RDH
Nearly everyone who works in a dental office has fed an X-ray film into an automatic processor. And nearly everyone who has done that has had the unpleasant experience of waiting in vain for the film to come back out. Sometimes, as we all know, it doesn't.
What do you do then? Well, first you say some things your mother wouldn't want to hear, and then you kick the nearest piece of furniture a few times. Finally, you pull the top off of the processor and start fishing for your film, which has either been scratched, overexposed, or plain lost. Then you replace the top, grind your teeth, and hope it doesn't happen next time.
Here's a hygienist who changed the scenario. She didn't wait for it to happen again. Joyce Yale of Hermosa Beach, Calif., got mad, just as the rest of us do, and then she fixed the problem, just as the rest of us might never think of doing.
She grew up with a mechanical bent to her mind. "I've always wanted to know how things work," she says. "I take things apart, like electrical appliances. It's important, though, that before you take something apart, you have a good idea what's inside."
About eight years ago, Joyce got really fed up with a Peri-Pro(tm) eight-track film processor. "I was just tired of it. I was only working in that office once a week. No one there was taking good care of the equipment. I kept losing X-rays, and my patients would complain about the extra radiation when I had to retake them."
Joyce knew from her experience in photography that precipitates from developing and fixing solutions could solidify on the tracks, leaving deposits that make films stick or jump off the tracks. One morning, she came to work early, took the processor apart, and carefully read the instructions in the maintenance manual.
"The manual just didn't jive with what I found inside. There were deposits, but scrubbing at them with a toothbrush didn't work, because the brush wouldn't fit everywhere. I tried using an instrument to chip off the deposits, but that can also chip off the very thin coating of the tracks."
After she thought about it for a while, Joyce decided she needed to invent something that would pass through the tracks and clean them thoroughly without damaging them. "So I went to the drawing board. I've always been a solution person."
It wasn't such an unusual thought for her. Joyce already held three patents in the dental field. The steps between having an idea and holding the product in her hand are long and involved. But all you really need, Joyce says, is determination and a whole lot of money. She estimates that patenting this invention costed about $1,500.
"One of my patients is a tool and die engineer, and he made the mold. Another guy I knew was in plastics, and he experimented with different materials until he got a heavy, extrudable mix that would work. The ProTracker(tm) had to be slim enough to go through tight rubber wheels at the heater end of the processor. He really did a great job. Then a patient who is an architect did the technical drawings for me."
With all that in hand, Joyce went to a patent library. Any large city will have one, she says, perhaps as a section of a larger library. "The librarians there are very helpful. They point you to references, and you start digging. You get good at memorizing long strings of numbers for the cross-references."
She was looking for a similar invention, so she could give the patent office a frame of reference, but she found nothing. She finally looked up the Peri-Pro patent application, and used that as a guide.
"After I wrote the patent, I took all of my paperwork to a patent attorney, and he filed the claim."
The U.S. Patent Office, Joyce says, is a vast network of experts, but not many of them are dental experts. "While they're looking at your patent, they may call you, or you can call them." It takes about nine months, and if your invention is found worthy, you're awarded a 20-year patent. (To renew that after 20 years, you would have to improve the product.)
The new device she invented and patented, the ProTracker(tm), is a simple piece of black plastic made to fit between the tracks of the Peri-Pro. To use it, you just remove the grid that holds the films separate, and drop the ProTracker in. Gravity takes it down, and it cleans the tracks on its way through.
The ProTracker didn't make her rich and famous, but it did make Joyce's own working life easier. Also, her product was recently listed in a Pearson Dental Supply catalog, and she has marketed the ProTracker at dental meetings in California. She has been in contact with Peri-Pro. "I met their vice president of sales and marketing, and he said he would talk to the engineering department about the ProTracker. I'd like them to add it to their product line as a maintenance device."
She hasn't given up her day job, but then, she doesn't want to. "I'd like to make my mark on the world with these inventions, but I love hygiene. I work three days a week in Beverly Hills, and two days in Los Angeles."
She came to California right after graduating from Northwestern in 1961, in her hometown of Chicago. "A dentist who was the father of a classmate said if we wanted to be appreciated as hygienists, we should go to L.A., so we did. I already had relatives in the area."
She married and divorced, and has a 24-year-old daughter who is her bagger and packer for ProTracker sales.
Joyce has been active in ADHA, and has been a member of the Los Angeles chapter since she moved there. She is past president and current editor for both the Los Angeles and South Bay chapters, and has been named "most valuable member" of each component at different times.
"I owe my success in life to the ambition my father instilled in his five children and to my lifelong membership in ADHA. Belonging to your professional association opens the door to your ability to understand that there is really no limit, with your education and the camaraderie of fellow practitioners, to the heights your life's wishes can take you. Without the professional affiliation, I believe that the dental hygienist - to quote a Beverly Hills dentist - is a 'dish washer.' I worked for the doctor who took over his practice.
She loves to encourage other hygienists to follow her path of discovery and problem solving.
"I hope hygienists are not timid about patents. A lot of people believe in that four-letter word, can't. Don't believe that; it's not true. You can do it. With any idea you have, don't say it's probably already been invented, because next year, it will be. Do the hard work, and get there first."
Joyce has heard from other hygienists who have invented products and are looking for information on the patent process. Anyone with questions is welcome to contact her at 310-376-3577 or at [email protected].
Besides the ProTracker, Joyce Yale holds four other patents for dental products, although not all of them are in production.
• Abrasive-lined prophy cup - In 1992, Joyce was granted her first patent, which was for inventing a snap-on prophy cup lined with an abrasive material in a network pattern. The cup is available in different colors to denote grades of abrasiveness from extra-fine to coarse.
"There are other cups like this," she says, "but mine has a millimeter or two at the end of the cup that is pumice-free to protect the tissue while going subgingivally. I developed the idea when I was working with a young dentist whose composites tended to be rough subgingivally."
• Quick-cover overgloves - Joyce patented these in 1993. "I was watching assistants at my office take X-rays, go into the darkroom for developing, then come back to the patient wearing the same gloves. My quick-cover gloves help maintain better asepsis."
Each Quick-cover glove has a patch of adhesive on the palm side of each finger, so the glove will adhere to a countertop; and a cut-out area above the wrist on the back side, so the glove is easy to remove.
An operator can don the Quick-covers over regular gloves; expose and develop the X-rays; then place her palms on a countertop, slip easily out of the Quick-covers, and go back to the patient with clean gloves already in place.
• Disposable prophy angle - In 1996, Joyce patented a disposable prophy angle for a snap-on cup.
"A snap-on cup doesn't always spin the way it's supposed to. Sometimes, it just sits there on the angle. My angle really works, though. The base for the mandrel or button that holds the cup has two sharp projections that impale the cup, so it has to spin."
• X-ray developing machine, including debris-cleaning transfer arms - After patenting the first ProTracker, Joyce met her patent attorney for breakfast one day. He asked if she could lose her patent to someone who had a bigger, better idea.
"Only if they put the cleaner inside the machine permanently," she said immediately. Then she set out to invent one of those, too. The new device places track-cleaning projections on the transfer arms of the lower transfer drives of a Peri-Pro so each rotation that pushes the films will also clean the tracks.
"I used my previous invention as the precedent for the patent office, and I was able to use some of the same paperwork."
Joyce does maintain a Web site for her products. It's www.protrackerx-ray.com.
Cathy Hester Seckman, RDH, is a frequent contributor based in Calcutta, Ohio. She can be reached at [email protected].