Dental Hygienists Are Finding the Job a Map for Lifelong Adventure

It all started in third grade. I was heading out to recess on a warm spring day. Like most kids, we were all in a hurry. That’s when it happened. A major face plant on the sidewalk. I got up crying. Not because I felt pain—because I could tell I had chipped a tooth. I was quickly whisked away to the school nurse’s office for an ice pack and a phone call to my mom. Mom reassured me that Dr. Meyer, our pediatric dentist, would fix my tooth today. That particular day he wasn’t at his office seeing patients, but at the dental school of Northwestern University, Evanston, IL. That was the beginning of my lifelong relationship with dentistry, and it launched me into my own dental hygiene profession.

I was seated right away in a special operatory, and was immediately surrounded by dental students. Low voices commented on how sweet I was and what a good patient I was being. Dr. Meyer was quick to point out that all the movie stars in Hollywood have this kind of special treatment done to their teeth. He expertly bonded my tooth while his watchful and observant dental students took notes. I truly felt like a celebrity with all the attention I received. I guess you could say this started my interest in teeth and the dental profession!

Then I went through the wanting to be a nurse phase. But, my Aunt Barbara, (RIP) an RDH, kept telling me I should be a Dental Hygienist. I started right out of high school in a Dental Assisting Program at Loyola University.

Dental School in Chicago. It was a fantastic one-year certification program that took me through all the dental specialties. I quickly learned I wanted more education. I applied and was accepted into the Dental Hygiene Program at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, IL. It was a wonderful (and very challenging) program that prepared me for the dental hygiene profession.

I worked clinical full time for four years and simultaneously finished my Bachelors Degree in Behavioral Science and my Masters Degree in Adult Education from National-Louis University in Evanston, IL. I loved learning. I just knew sometime, in the future, I would teach. But, first . . .

Round One Adventure – Dental Hygiene Job in Switzerland

At that time (mid 1980’s) Swiss dentists were in need of dental hygienists, as their Swiss schools could not keep up with the demand. So, they “imported” American and Canadian dental hygienists. I worked for a Swiss dentist, just outside of Zurich, for almost 3 years. I met many other RDH’s from all over the states. We were paid very well and enjoyed over 6 weeks vacation a year. We traveled just about every weekend!! I am still very close to a group of these woman and we have a Swiss Dental Hygiene reunion somewhere in the states every two years. It was a fantastic experience and fueled my love of travel and exposed me to different ideas in dentistry. I was also required to take weekly German lessons which helped greatly in providing patient care.

Upon my return to the states, I continued to work full time in clinical dental hygiene and truly loved providing patient care. It was a perfect fit for being married and raising our daughter. I stayed active in ADHA at the state and local level. I was fortunate to work at an office that was progressive and flexible. This is where I was introduced to . . .

Round Two Adventure – Medical Mission Trip for Alliance for Smiles

We went to China, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Philippines, Ghana, and Zimbabwe. Who knew a dental hygienist could provide care to so many in need?

The dentist I worked with for over twenty years, Patrick O’Flaherty, DDS, was Rotarian and participated in a medical mission trip with Alliance for Smiles. AFS has the focus of providing free reconstructive cleft lip and palate surgery to underserved children around the world. Full medical teams travel together for two weeks and are based in a hospital to provide these life changing surgeries. Prior to surgery, dental treatment is provided. When I learned that a dental hygienist was part of these teams, I immediately applied and was placed on a trip for the following year. Since 2007, I have been on 14 mission trips. These trips are life changing for the child having surgery, their families, as well as all the medical volunteers. I have met the most kind and giving people on these trips. Truly inspiring.

But, after working clinical dental hygiene for over 30 plus years, I knew a change was in order. The dental practice where I was working sold and that was a catalyst for something new. Fortunately, around that same time, I learned about the HyLife Oral Health Alliance at a local dental hygiene component meeting and was very intrigued.

Round Three Adventure – Bringing Oral Care to Elder Care!

My Aunt Carolyn has Alzheimer’s Disease. She has resided in a wonderful Memory Care Community for almost 8 years. She is in perfect health – just absolutely no short term memory. At 95 years young, she has a full compliment of natural teeth. She is just one of the many seniors I see weekly to provide oral hygiene care. We all know oral health affects overall health!

Enter Angie Stone RDH, founder and CEO of the HyLife Oral Health Alliance. This protocol was her brainchild after experiencing poor dental outcomes for relatives in assisted living care. The concept: Let’s put dental hygienists where they are most needed—and provide preventive care to those who need it most. This service is private pay by the family and they are thrilled that it is being provided. Incorporated are Spry products with xylitol to decrease bacterial plaque and reduce dry mouth.

I have had the most amazing experiences working with seniors with dementia and their families. This activity of daily living, brushing one’s teeth, is beyond their capabilities, and must be provided for them. The predicted numbers of individuals with dementia in the next twenty years in daunting. I look forward to providing oral hygiene care for my clients for many years to come.

We must work together with assisted living communities and their staff to educate and encourage. I have provided many CNA in-service education presentations on the importance of oral care, as well as many presentations to senior groups on why oral health is so important to overall health. I guess this is where I am finally teaching!

Here’s what I ask my senior group audience members to ask their dental office professionals: When I can no longer get here, how are you going to take care of me and my dental health? HyLife has a goal to start asking this question now! How are we as a profession going to help? It can start with quality oral hygiene care.

Round Four Adventure – Working with Dental Hygiene Students

I still work a few days a month clinical. I really do love providing patient care. I’m involved at the Illinois State level in working with dental hygiene students and have done many presentations with them. As a delegate for ADHA, I try and convey to them that participation in their professional organization is paramount for growth. I want to share with them my career experiences and encourage them to always be moving forward. Attend a national dental or dental hygiene meeting, take continuing education courses, be involved!

I hope to inspire other dental professionals to think beyond their private practice. We have the exact clinical, communication and interpersonal relationship skills to adapt to a variety of healthcare settings. Career changes can start your own ROUND of adventures!

Submitted by:
Mary Jensen RDH, MS maryjensenrdh@gmail.com
Lead Oral Care Specialist
HyLife Oral Health Alliance www.hylifeoha.com Lead Dental Hygienist
Alliance for Smiles www.allianceforsmiles.org

For more inspirational success stories:

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Mary has practiced dental hygiene for 37 years, including three years in Switzerland. She is the lead Oral Care Specialist with the HyLife Oral Health Alliance—a network of dental hygienists that provide weekly oral hygiene care to dependent seniors. Along with her passion for the overall health of seniors, is her passion for mission trips. Mary has completed over a dozen trips with Alliance for Smiles-providing dental hygiene care on four continents and six countries. Young Caring Clinician Award 2015 Volunteer of the Year Alliance for Smiles 2016 Philips Heart to Hands Award 2017 Mary welcomes the opportunity to speak to dental or dental hygiene groups, dental or dental hygiene student groups, senior groups and assisted living community staff on oral care and elder care as well as her mission trip experiences.

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