Please don't leave me

Jan. 1, 2000
“We welcome passion, for the mind is briefly let off duty.

“We welcome passion, for the mind is briefly let off duty.”
—Mignon McLaughlin The Neurotics Notebook, 1960

Beep...beep...beep! I hear my alarm and can't believe it's already Monday morning. As I stand in the shower, I wonder how many other dental hygienists feel the way I do. I never would have guessed that I'd be working in the dental profession. How many kids dream of having their hand in people's mouths all day, every day? Most kids contemplate honorable jobs like firefighting and teaching. Is there anything honorable about dental hygiene?

After practicing for 14 years, I'm beginning to wonder. What kind of person picks hygiene as a profession? Those of us who are hygienists can spot potential candidates a mile away: not a hair out of place, beautiful teeth, overachievers, and not very good at math. I love the opening quote above from The Neurotic's Notebook. Most hygienists proudly place themselves in the neurotic category, especially when it comes to getting that last bit of stain off the lower incisal roots of our pipe-smoking patients. Could it be that we're a group of passionately neurotic professionals?

I wonder how my boss feels about working all day with 10 women. Do dental school instructors strongly warn male dental students that they must be able to work with and understand females when they graduate? Does my boss ever wake up and wonder why he chose the dental field?

Scott W. Wemmer has been my boss for the past nine years. A proud graduate of Ohio State University, he practices in the small town of Howard City, Michigan. Scott is one of the nicest people I know, and every day he reminds me why I chose hygiene. He does not judge people, and treats even the most unworthy people with respect. On days when it seems like we're a denture center rather than a general practice office, he doesn't complain. When he agrees to remake the smallest complete upper denture I have ever seen, for the third time, to try to make the patient happy, he doesn't complain. When our toothache patients arrive holding their periodontally involved teeth in their hand and the staff thinks, “Idiots, you could have prevented that,” Scott steps to the front of their chair to ask if they're in pain.

Many of our patients call him “Scott,” not Dr. Wemmer. They see his kindness and feel his genuine concern for their well-being. He is honest with patients and puts a tangible value on their opinion. He has been practicing for 30 years and still cares.

“Care” is a strong word. What does it look like? According to, “care” means “to have an inclination, liking, fondness or affection.” I'm guessing care should not be, “Good morning, Sam,” probe, scale, polish, floss, wait, then “Have a good day, Sam.” Did I pursue dental hygiene because of my need to care for people?

Of course I did — at least a little bit. I picked dental hygiene because I was assisting for a dentist I hated to work with. I also found out how much money hygienists make. I wanted to have it all, and having a flexible schedule to accommodate my family was very important. I don't see the word “care” in any of that.

Could this be one of the reasons dental hygienists quit? After the family is established and the paycheck arrives each week, what's left? Hygiene is one of the few professions where a person graduates and makes the same amount of money as someone who's been practicing for 20 years. There has to be something more to everyday life.

Care and passion are directly related. It's not possible to have one without the other. I remember a quote I read: “Don't ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.” (Anonymous)

According to Cheryl Richardson, a life coach who appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2007, there are five important steps to finding your passion:

•Step One: Get quiet — For most people, connecting with passion begins with good self-care. This means slowing down, spending time with yourself, taking good care of your body and mind, nurturing your spirit, and engaging in activities that will move you out of your head and into your body. When you become passionate about your self-care, you'll know you're on the right track.

•Step Two: Become sensitive to your environment — Once you're connected to your feelings, you'll be ready to do a little exploring to discover the specific, personal things that best ignite your passions. Spend one week paying close attention to what excites you, touches you, inspires you to think a new way, or even frustrates you. Watch for clues, such as stories in newspapers, TV programs, or conversations with friends that may indicate the things that will lead you to your passions.

•Step Three: Answer a series of questions — What interest, passion or desire are you most afraid of admitting to yourself and others? What do you love about yourself? Who do you know that's doing something you'd like to do? Describe yourself doing it. How could you make the world a better place for yourself and others? What's stopping you from moving forward with exploring your passion?

•Step Four: Go on a treasure hunt — Go on a treasure hunt in your own home. The things you hold onto are clues to your interests and passions. Do you make connections to old pictures? Is there a special memento from a memory that means something to you? How does what you find make you feel about yourself and your dreams?

•Step Five: Take a risk — Stop thinking about your passions and start doing something. Take a risk, and step out and try something new. By challenging your fear with action you'll not only raise your self-esteem, you'll expand your comfort zone. If you're not sure what to do, ask a trusted friend or partner for ideas. Remember that good luck happens when you're in action. If you try something new (even if you're not sure of the outcome), you may discover a passionate interest!

Richardson also stresses the importance of writing in a daily journal. I have a friend who has been trying to get me to do this for years. She claims it's good for clearing the mind. I believe it adds stress to my mind to think about writing every day. I prefer to head to Starbucks when I need to clear my mind. But I do believe that people who write down their goals are more likely to succeed with their dreams. Perhaps I should give it another try.

How do patients define a passionate hygienist? I believe they would say it's the person who doesn't physically hurt them, belittle them, or make them feel like they have no control over their health. I will never forget a rainy morning in May when five-year-old Conner was on my schedule. That particular morning was very hectic. I was running late and felt nauseated from morning sickness. Conner's mother came into the treatment room with us. Conner climbed in the chair, and I placed the bib around his neck and asked him if any teeth hurt. He said no, so I told him he was due for pictures of his teeth. But his mother said she did not want X-rays of her son's teeth, she just wanted them cleaned.

As a new graduate, I tried to make Conner's mother understand that X-rays are essential to good oral health. Unfortunately what she heard was, “You're a bad mother for not getting him the treatment he needs. Because of that, his teeth may be rotting out of his head at this very moment.” She left the treatment room crying. The receptionist told me about the tears after Conner and his mom left. It turns out that Conner's mother had been saving money to bring him to the dentist. She was a single mom and felt she was doing a beautiful thing for her child by bringing him to the dentist for a cleaning.

Where was my caring? It's obvious that Conner's mother knew what it looked like and I didn't.

I've learned many things about people over the last 14 years. Sometimes I don't like people, but that's regardless of the fact that I care for them. That is the definition of my job.

We all have our favorite patients, the ones we love to talk to and the ones that love to talk to us. This year has been a hard one for one of my favorite patients. His wife died after struggling with cancer.

David is a vibrant man in his early 60s. He knows about caring and passion, and his wife, Theresa, died in April. I saw him shortly after her funeral. He was pale, his hair was messed, and he looked drawn. There have been a few patients over the years that I have had the opportunity to shed tears with, and he is one of them. As we remembered his wife together, he told me about how she had died quietly in their home.

Just a few months later, David came in for his recare appointment. As he stood to come back to my chair, I noticed his hair was combed and his face was radiant. I told him I loved his blue shirt and it made him glow. About 15 minutes into his appointment, David touched my hand to stop it as it was traveling toward his mouth with an instrument.

He said, “Have you ever lost something you loved and thought you were never going to find it again?” I thought, “Sure, I lost my keys yesterday and I was almost late for work.”

He proceeded to tell me about the beautiful lady he had met. They will be married this Christmas. Her husband had died 20 years ago, leaving her with four girls to raise. She had never remarried. David will be her second husband. They are talking about retiring so they can travel together. When I think of “care” and “passion,” I see David's eyes as he tells me about what he lost and thought he would never find again: love, care and passion.

I also envision my boss, Scott, when I think of “care.” Every so often a sales rep brings him the biography of a potential associate Scott could bring into the practice so he can think about retiring. I don't like to think about that day. I know from experience that each workplace offers its strengths. Our strength is caring. What will care look like when he is gone? Please don't leave me…

About the Author

Robin L. Kerkstra, RDH, practices dental hygiene in Howard City, Michigan. She has also worked as a part-time clinical dental hygiene instructor at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan. She's currently pursuing her bachelor's degree through Ferris State University. She may be contacted at [email protected].