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A newfound respect

April 1, 2011
Injured hygienist develops an appreciation for front office staff

Injured hygienist develops an appreciation for front office staff

by Colene W. House, RDH

Before I share a confession, I need to tell you the whole story. When I usually say this, my husband just rolls his eyes. "Can't you just cut to the chase? Do you really have to tell all the details?"

Well. Yes. I do. It's part of what makes me me.

On December 15, 2006, I sat in a hand specialist's office, waiting to hear what he had to say about the X-rays his technician had just taken of my hands. Over the course of two years, a lingering soreness in the muscle of my right thumb led me to try different surgical gloves while attempting to find a brand and style that fit better. I couldn't find one that made any difference. I tried a cortisone shot that worked great for three months, but even that failed to help over the long term.

So I looked out the window of the doctor's office, trying to pretend that I wasn't nervous. The diagnosis? The decision was carpometacarpal arthritis of the base of the thumb. No matter who you are, for any dental professional who relies on the use of the hands to make a living, that's pretty devastating news to hear. In a matter of seconds, you watch your future completely change.

At the time, I was 55 years old. The thought of preparing for retirement was tickling my mind, but I was not ready to take that step. I felt that I was just hitting my stride, and still having fun. No kidding, I love my job! And to be told that I wouldn't make it until I was 60. Whoa! That's scary.

Right away, my husband and I started trying to come up with a solution – a solution to keep me employed and a solution to keep us afloat. I was also trying to figure out a way that I could serve as a dental hygienist for as long as possible. Was surgery an option? Yes. Surgery, though, could not guarantee that my hand would be as strong as it had been before. The ability to grip a scaler with strength, precision, and confidence is not a slam dunk after the surgery, according to my hand specialist.

After talking to my boss, the decision was made for me to go part-time. I would work two days a week, hoping that this new schedule would postpone the inevitable. We planned ahead to start the part-time schedule on July 1, 2007. I wanted time to prepare myself and my patients. Many of the patients would be relinquished to the other three hygienists in my office. These are really great gals that I work with, my "sisters" so to speak. I knew that they would provide superb care to my patients that I had been caring for the past 20 years.

These patients and I had developed a connection after all this time, a connection that I felt would be harder for them to sever because they didn't know what I knew about my very talented co-workers. That's part of our responsibility – to ensure a continuum of care for those we have been entrusted to care for when we are not able to provide that care any more. It was hard to give some of these patients up, and the only fair way to choose which of them to keep was to find the ones who could only come on the days I would be working.

Then something else started happening. I started feeling separation anxiety, not just from my patients, but from my extended family. My working family. Barb and I had been working side-by-side for 20 years, listening to each other giggle with our patients. Michele had joined the practice 15 years ago and has been referred to as the heartbeat of our office. Dr. Gillespie joined Dr. Ken Hornowski in 1996, then took the helm when Dr. Hornowski was forced to retire due to neck issues. Cindy, Yvette, Rebecca, Darlene, Donna (who started with us as a mere babe of 18), Belinda, and Wendy are all a part of my extended family.

Not being there every day meant I would miss out on the continuing stories of my best friends' lives. Not being there every day also meant that I would potentially lose the pulse of our practice. Finally, Dr. Gillespie came up with what we both thought was a great idea. I would work at the front desk two days a week, learning the business end of the practice. Michele, Darlene, and Cindy would attempt to turn a dyed-in-the-wool hygienist (who had been hyper-focusing on one patient at a time, obsessing over tiny dots of stain and tenacious calculus for 36 years) into one of the front desk personnel who has to keep up with five phone lines ringing, patients checking in and out, insurance rules, financial arrangements, and so forth. I was actually excited to get to wear real clothes! Cool.

At the end of the first day, my brain felt like it was sizzling. I couldn't stand to listen to the radio or my favorite CD as I drove home. Suffering from sensory overload, I just wanted quiet. I was not in the mood to talk on the cell to my sister. I had a crick in my neck that wouldn't go away. When I arrived home, my husband looked at me and mentioned that my eyes didn't look like they were focusing. Actually, he said that my eyes looked like they were looking in two different directions. At that moment, I think my head spun around on my shoulders about three times, which sent my normally patient husband running for cover!

Meekly, he asked what I had planned for dinner. Dinner? That word seemed vaguely familiar, but I couldn't for the life of me remember what that was. I stood in the middle of the kitchen turning in circles. Finally, my husband gently guided me back to the car, opened the door, sat me down, then got in himself. He looked at me, opened his mouth to ask where I wanted to go to dinner, thought better of it (we haven't been married for 35 years for nothing), and drove us to the quietest restaurant he could think of. Poor thing probably thought he would have to spoon-feed me.

The next day wasn't much better. But I wanted to be there. I wanted to be with my friends. And besides, I was getting to wear real clothes. Cool.

After a month, I was tired of coordinating different outfits to wear, matching shoes with the clothes and accessorizing jewelry. I was bored with having to fix my hair.

In another couple of months, I was starting to feel comfortable checking out the patients. I was able to speak coherently while I navigated through the checkout process, and figure out financial arrangements for treatment patients needed. I felt comfortable scheduling the hygienists, but I was still having trouble getting a handle scheduling the doctors.

That's when we received the news that Michele would have to take a six-week leave of absence to convalesce after a necessary surgery. Not only would we be down one person at the front desk, but we would be missing the one person who seemed to understand how Dr. Gillespie wanted to be scheduled. Michele, the heartbeat, would be missing.

I had no idea what I was in for.

At the end of the longest six weeks of my life, Michele finally returned. Honestly, I don't think I've ever been so glad to see someone in my life! It was shortly after her return that I finally came to a realization: I'm not front desk material, at least not at this time of my life. Perhaps I never will be.

That's my confession. I now have a newfound respect for our front desk coordinators. I also realize that it isn't just Michele who is the heartbeat of the practice, but Darlene and Cindy as well. These ladies truly have got to be saints to be able to juggle all the things that they do simultaneously. And here's the thing; they make it all look so easy!

I have changed the way I approach them with a request or a problem. We all should. The awesome ladies that serve on the front lines deserve our greatest respect and appreciation.

So the next chapter of my life begins. But that's a different story.

Colene W. House, RDH, is a 1971 graduate of Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, N.C., and has devoted the last 40 years to clinical dentistry. Recently, House has discovered a love of speaking and writing about her experiences over the years. She is the owner and moderator of an online support group, for hygienists who suffer from CMC arthritis. She can be contacted at [email protected].

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