A couple of folk sayings ... or whatever happened to those Wilsonettes?

Oct. 1, 2003
The author has a few stories about dental staffs that are deliciously wicked, thoughtfully nice, or downright clueless.

by Cathy Hester Seckman, RDH

I have some stories to tell, and they really happened. Before you read this, however, I'd like to introduce you to what I call two modern folk sayings.

The first, coined by my sister, a 30-year hygienist, is, "Dentists are all alike." My sister isn't talking about dentists as people or clinicians. She's talking about dentists as employers.

Think about it. Most dentists have been self-employed for the majority of their careers, and they don't know much about being employees. In college, they didn't get much training in staff relations. So I agree with my sister — when it comes to being the boss, "Dentists are all alike."

A man who weighed 400 pounds coined the second saying. While I was doing research about gastric bypass surgery, the man told me, "If an obese person could say one thing to a normal size person, it would be, 'You just don't get it.'"

Remember these sayings because sometimes they're true.

Now for my stories. In the first, the dentist's name has been changed because — well, you'll see.

I was doing a temp job 50 miles from home and far from my normal circle of dental acquaintances. I hit it off immediately with Pam, the full-time hygienist.

One of the office assistants walked into the lab while Pam and I were talking and asked, "Is she a Wilsonette, too? Is that how you know each other?"

"No, we've never met," Pam answered.

"What's a Wilsonette?" I asked.

"It's a long story," Pam said with a laugh. "I once worked very briefly for a periodontist named Dr. Wilson. She's so hard to work for that no one stays more than a few weeks. Some of her ex-employees started getting together for dinner once a month."

The receptionist walked in and said, "I could be a Wilsonette. I did a temp job for Dr. Wilson, and her mother was her assistant — I guess because no one else would work there. She was this little old stooped over lady who hobbled around, but Dr. Wilson treated her like dirt. If my daughter ever treated me like that I'd be ashamed of her."

I was shaking my head in sympathy, thinking about what my sister would say.

"One year we sent her a Christmas card," Pam said.

My mouth dropped open. "You sent her a card?" I gasped. "How many people signed it?"

Pam looked up at the ceiling and did some mental arithmetic. "About 15," she answered.

"Fif-," I couldn't even finish the word, I was laughing so hard. I couldn't help it, it was so deliciously wicked. And Pam wasn't finished.

"We took a picture of ourselves and enclosed it in the card," Pam explained. "We wrote on it, '15 people can't be wrong.'"

I just erupted. Hygienists in Mississippi, Alaska, even Switzerland, probably heard me howling. After I'd managed to calm down, Pam said one more thing.

"And we actually did mail the card."

My sister loved this story. "Dentists are all alike," she reiterated. "And they just don't get it." She couldn't wait to tell the story to every dental employee she knew.

Dental employees aren't always deliciously wicked. Sometimes we can be downright nice. Here's my next story and example of how we can actually be nice.

At my office we have a patient named Prudy, a retired teacher with more eccentricities than the average person. She loves to shop at yard sales and antique malls, and admits to having a basement full of stuff that she has to clear every month for the meter reader.

Prudy loves to complain about our bathroom for patients. "You need a sign!" she cries at every visit. "How are we supposed to know where the bathroom is without a sign?"

Now Prudy has been a patient at this office for a good 10 years, and it's a pretty small place. We figure she should know where the bathroom is by now.

One day she came in smiling like a cat that swallowed a rare canary.

"I found it!" she exclaimed. "I've been looking for one of these for years, and I finally found it for you."

She proudly displayed a small, handmade plaque that read, "Necessary Room." It was wooden and obviously made by a crafter. It was a bit dusty and smeared, and the lace around it was yellow and limp with age. We figure she paid a quarter for it at a yard sale.

Our office décor is minimal. We don't accessorize much, and country kitsch definitely doesn't fit. "Besides," my co-worker, Martine, said later, "the sign is ugly."

But when Prudy presented him with the sign, the doctor boomed, "Thank you," and smiled for all he was worth. "It was nice of you to think of us."

"Now," said Prudy triumphantly, "I won't have to wonder which room is the bathroom when I come here."

The sign sat around for a few days, and eventually ended up on the windowsill in the staff bathroom. We were too nice, you see, to throw it away.

Six months later I retrieved the sign. "We should hang it up," I said. "Prudy's coming in this afternoon."

"We can't put a nail in the door," said Martine. "How would we hang it up? And it's ugly, remember?"

"We can't hurt Prudy's feelings," said Barb, another member of the staff. "It'll only be up for an hour. Try taping it."

We experimented with sticky mailing tape, but that didn't work.

"Thumbtack," suggested Liz, another coworker. "We can just put one in the wall next to the door."

That worked, and the sign was dangling precariously on the wall when Prudy arrived. She didn't' mention it until she was ready to leave.

"I suppose I'll have to go and find that bathroom," she grumbled. "How's a person supposed to know?"

"Take a look," I said proudly. "Right there, beside the door."

Prudy was tickled pink to see her sign, and she left with a jaunty spring in her step. We felt great, but we also took the sign down. It made another brief appearance when Prudy returned for a filling two weeks later. She took note of the sign and left smiling. We returned it to the staff bathroom and kept the thumbtack handy for her next visit.

Besides being sometimes naughty and sometimes nice, dental employees can be downright clueless. The following happened in my sister's office.

Lisa, one of the hygienists (and a Wilsonette, by the way), took a panorex for a new patient. When she developed it, she was surprised to see the words "SpongeBob Squarepants" printed across the lower anteriors.

She approached the patient. "Do you have a SpongeBob tongue?" she asked.

"Do I what?" the patient asked.

"Look at this," said Lisa, holding the film up on the light box. The patient was as bewildered as Lisa.

Lisa showed the film to everyone in the office, and it was a mystery to all. The debate went on for hours.

"I just can't imagine," Lisa said that afternoon, holding the X-ray up to the ceiling light one more time. As she did, she noticed the bandage on her finger.

It was a cartoon bandaid she'd gotten from her son's bathroom that morning. Printed across the ball of her thumb in glow-in-the-dark letters were the words, "SpongeBob Squarepants."

Aren't we all alike? Sometimes we get it, and sometimes we don't.

Cathy Hester Seckman, RDH, is a frequent contributor who is based in Calcutta, Ohio. She can be contacted at cseckman @raex. com.