Up, Up, and Away

April 1, 2000
Maintaining two jobs - one in the air and one in the dental office - translates into an exciting and busy life for hygienist/ flight attendant Jacqueline Perry.

Maintaining two jobs - one in the air and one in the dental office - translates into an exciting and busy life for hygienist/ flight attendant Jacqueline Perry.

Cathy Hester Seckman, RDH

Picture the average hygienist at the end of the day. She cleans the operatory, puts everything away, checks the upcoming schedule, and bids the staff good night. Once at home, she flops into an easy chair, massages her tired fulcrum finger, and heaves a big sigh. Tomorrow will be the same, she thinks to herself.

Ah, but tomorrow will be different from today. Tomorrow, there will be no teeth to polish, no flossing lessons to give, and no charts to track down. Why? This is not your average hygienist. This is Jacqueline Perry.

Perry, who lives in Tacoma, Wash., is a little embarrassed that other people find her life so interesting. "My patients think it`s fantastic, but I try not to mention it at work, because they want to stop and talk about it - where I go, what it`s like. Sometimes that distracts me, so I prefer not to say anything."

What`s the big secret? It`s one of those things that makes you smile, shake your head, and wonder why your life can`t be as exciting. Along with her three days of hygiene per week, Jacqueline works three days as a flight attendant for Alaska Airlines.

She`s been with the airline for 12 years, but flying wasn`t her first love - teeth were!

"I don`t know why, but I`ve always had a fascination with teeth," Perry said. "I love to talk to people, and I love working with education. I`ve always wanted to be a hygienist."

But getting through hygiene school was not easy for Perry. At 19, Jacqueline didn`t feel she was mature enough or committed enough to make it. "I wanted to travel and be out on my own," Perry admitted. She left college after two years and became a flight attendant at 21.

When she decided, at 30, to finish college, hygiene still was her choice for a career - when and if she decided to settle down. But Perry knew she would have to keep working as a flight attendant to pay the bills for her schooling. She applied to several hygiene programs and, even though it was far from her hometown of Puyallup, Wash., she chose the program that offered her the best financial package - the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Dentistry.

"I still was flying full-time during school," she recalled. "Alaska Airlines has a great program for continuing your education, and they were very flexible with my situation. I`d leave Kansas City on Friday after classes, fly back to Tacoma, work all weekend, then take the red-eye back to Kansas City at midnight on Sunday. My classmates and co-workers thought that sounded exciting, but it really wasn`t. I always was sitting on a plane at 3 a.m. trying to finish a paper. I`d get in Monday morning, change clothes at the airport, and go directly to school."

This time, Perry was determined to earn her bachelor`s degree and become the first person in her family to graduate from college. But that determination was tested almost to the breaking point when her father passed away less than three months before Perry was scheduled to graduate.

"It was very difficult," Perry said. "I was flying back and forth, trying to take care of my mother. I missed a week of school. I kept thinking, `My father was so proud of me. I can`t stop now.` I couldn`t let him down. I made up the work and finished."

She ranked fourth in the class of 1997 and received numerous honors, including the Chancellor`s Non-Resident Scholarship, Sigma Phi Alpha Award, Colgate-Palmolive "Bright Smiles, Bright Futures" Award, Golden Key Award, Dean`s Honor Roll, and a second-place award for a Midwestern Dental Conference table clinic.

After dealing with her own family emergency, Perry became inspired to help other students in need.

"I realized during one of my flights back and forth that if a regular student had had this happen, he or she would be very hard-pressed to come up with the airfare for one trip, let alone the four roundtrips I took," Perry said. "So, I started an emergency relief fund at UMKC for hygiene students in need of emergency money for things such as a death in the family or some other hardship. It currently is run by the Rinehart Foundation and is overseen by Kim Bray, a professor at UMKC.

"Twice a year, I donate money to this account, and will continue to do so until my death. I set it up to remember my father and all he did for me, and to help out students so they can continue to concentrate on school, not on money."

Perry`s job as a flight attendant gave her the confidence she needed when it came time to look for a job in the hygiene field.

"My people skills were already in place," Perry explained. "I`ve always been very service-oriented. I have the advantage of being able to read people, and put them at ease. One profession complements the other."

Perry, an African-American, admits that her biggest worry after graduation was the specter of discrimination from her patients.

"It was my biggest concern, but, so far, I`ve received nothing but respect from my employer and my patients," Perry said. "Some may judge me before I even begin my job, but I try to conduct myself as a professional at all times and give the patients exactly what I would want if I were in their position.

"I only wish that more under-represented minority groups were present in the fields of hygiene and dentistry," she continued. "Maybe it would help to dispel some of the stereotypes that may still exist. I feel that it is very important for minority children to see health professionals of their own race and know that hygienists also are African-American, Hispanic, etc."

Perry presently works Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays for Dr. James Kinoshita in Tacoma. On Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, she flies with Alaska Airlines from Alaska to Mexico. On Mondays, she takes a break, organizes her week, and packs to go out again next time.

"I try to come back Sunday afternoon or evening, but sometimes I can`t get home. If I`m stuck in Juneau or somewhere else, my office understands," Perry said. "There`s another hygienist on call, or they can cancel patients. So far, it`s only happened twice."

Perry likes the flexibility of her life. "I look forward to the diversity of both jobs, because they`re so different. I always intended to do both and, so far, it`s working out perfectly. It`s like night and day. I`ll continue to do this for a while, but I eventually want to concentrate more on hygiene. I`ve been playing with the idea of getting my master`s degree."

Though it sometimes embarrasses her, Perry never lacks for discussion topics with patients or passengers.

"When passengers find out that I`m a hygienist, they immediately ask questions. `What is bleaching?` `What toothpaste should I use?` `What do you think about this or that?`," Perry said. "When patients find out, they want to know about all the places I`ve been, and show me pictures of their own trips."

So far, Perry`s favorite travel experience has been taking her office staff to San Francisco for a day. "They were like kids on the cable cars! Their excitement made me really enjoy the whole trip." Last fall, she was able to invite a friend along on a flight to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. "We took a glass-bottom boat ride to the Arch de Arco and watched the dolphins and sea lions swim."

Other favorite experiences, she says, include "seeing the Northern lights on a clear night, watching the whales feed off Sitka, going to a raptor center where bald eagles are rehabilitated and set free, taking a helicopter ride over Juneau in the summertime, hiking through the jungles of Puerto Vallarta, and seeing the glaciers of Alaska.

"Sometimes I tend to take it all for granted. I forget that everyone can`t fly down to Los Angeles or Las Vegas for the weekend."

No, everyone can`t, but at least we other hygienists can dream. So, the next time you`re stuck in the office on a dull, dreary Friday afternoon, look out the window for a passing airplane and just imagine - Jacqueline Perry might be on it!

Cathy Seckman, RDH, is a frequent contributor to RDH. She is based in Calcutta, Ohio.