How fragile they are

Oct. 1, 2011
The lyrics from a song by Sting illuminate my message for this column: "Lest we forget how fragile we fragile we are..."

by Eileen Morrissey, RDH, MS
[email protected]

The lyrics from a song by Sting illuminate my message for this column: “Lest we forget how fragile we are ... how fragile we are ...”

One thing I fear may be lost by hygienists shortly after we begin working with people is the remembrance of the fragility of the human spirit. This is what we hold in our clinical hands as we treat a patient. They come to us with a profound vulnerability that should never be taken for granted.

Yet a few months into our professional careers, I believe we forget. All right, maybe we don’t really forget; it’s just that we go on autopilot for that dynamic of the interaction. We lose sight of just how vulnerable each patient feels as they sit in our chair and open their mouths to us.

I believe that the opening of their mouths to us is right up there with being naked — an exposure that is simply profound. Holding that bond and trust and rapport with a person who may be seeing you for the first time, or the hundredth, is a privilege that must never be taken lightly.

It started with our smile, warmth, and greeting to our patient in those first few moments. We created that initial positive connection; or, we chose to keep it impersonal. How well do I know? The latter seems to be my world each time I enter most health-care settings.

Know that our mere presence will inspire peace, calm, and tranquility — and just as easily, a choppy sea. It begins with the demeanor. If we are harried, does it show on our face and body language? Our patients sense it instantly. We must tuck away that disquiet and project calm for the sake of those who may well be anxious themselves.

Hygienists have the power to create an impregnable perception. As we hold that mouth in our hands, we hold the spirit. Our presence can comfort and soothe; conversely, it can create incredible angst.

Our voices are powerful instruments as well, perhaps more so than any instrument placed on the bracket table in front of us. The voice can be hypnotic and mesmerizing, soothing anxiety with a simple tone. Being extra gentle early in the clinical dynamic also sets the stage for the entire appointment.

An example is the taking of X-rays. The patient is inspired peacefulness when the approach to the mouth happens slowly, without accidental jarring, accompanied by a clear, calm, slow tone that explains precisely what steps need be taken. This is magic for the individual who was dreading that X-ray holder. Create ease at that point and you have now paved a soothing path for the appointment ahead. Do not take this lightly — it is too powerful.

There is still more that can happen with the voice. Throughout my life, I have an unintentional habit of becoming immediately aware of the cadence, inflections, and intonations of voices. I find myself unconsciously mimicking those auditory qualities on a very elementary level. Surprisingly, in doing so, I find it helps to create a rapport with the person. It’s almost as if they sense the familiarity in the voice that is coming toward them and, in a subconscious way, respond favorably to it.

And then there is everything else that we do as we progress through the appointment. Checking in with a sincere “Are you comfortable?” in midstream demonstrates a highest order of care. If we need to educate them about improving their homework, did the tone in our voice accentuate the positive, or chisel away at their spirit?

Lastly, what did we leave them with? Hopefully, an impression of an optimistic hour of their time well spent. Let us use our voices to ensure their wanting to return. Choose words carefully. It is all too powerful not to recognize the profound impact. Onward we go; it’s in our heart’s core.

Eileen Morrissey, RDH, MS, is a practicing clinician, speaker, and writer. She is an adjunct dental hygiene faculty member at Burlington County College. Eileen offers CE forums to doctors, hygienists, and their teams. Reach her at [email protected] or 609-259-8008. Visit her website at

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