Breathing New Life Into My Career

Feature article from the DeW Life Magazine Summer 2020

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How can it feel like yesterday that I was seeing most of my clients in the office making a personal connection? At this moment, mid-April 2020, the world is experiencing an unimaginable crisis that has impacts both personally and professionally as we are quarantined and personal distancing due to COVID19. How can it feel like yesterday and at the same time feel like a lifetime ago that I welcomed Christina into my Orofacial Myofunctional practice Facial Function? I am so grateful I can continue to serve clients by way of telehealth sessions during this crisis to help those with sleep, breathing and oral dysfunctions reach their goals.

On a sunny day last December, I opened the door to greet an elegantly dressed new client with long shiny blonde hair. “You exist; I have been searching for someone to help me!” she exclaims. Christina, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a national keynote speaker, enters the office and sits across the table in the consultation room to discuss her concerns. “At my last dental visit, I was telling the dental team about how frustrated I am that my tongue stops working while I am speaking. I feel like I go mute and struggle to finish my presentations.” She continues, “I have both emotional and physical pain that is interfering with my life in ways it is hard for others to understand. I have been searching for answers; are you able to help me?”

As an oral health professional, I felt her desperation to my core.

Can I help her find the answers? This question made me reflect on how I got to this place in my career where I can serve others by helping them find the root cause and solutions for their concerns with orofacial myofunctional disorders. My career has taken a new direction to places that took perseverance to achieve, from advanced training, creating a company to forming new interdisciplinarity relationships. I have experienced the value of collaborating with medical and dental professionals who are specialized in oral function as we assist those who are looking for answers.

It has breathed new life into my career to witness amazing transformations in the lives of those I have had the privilege to serve.

I am honored to share with you how my career has changed from feeling like a burnt-out dental hygienist living with chronic neck pain to being on fire as a dental hygienist/orofacial myologist specializing in breathing and oral-facial function.

After over thirty years as a clinical dental hygienist, I thought I would be retiring. But now, retiring is not as appealing anymore.  I discovered the answer to who I am, what gives me purpose; and I am working harder than ever. My work does not feel like work – but like a gift I have that I can share with others.

My journey started when I was in high school.

People would ask me, “What profession are you going to choose?” What I was asking myself was, “Who am I?” I will never forget the day I was at a crowded restaurant and a young lady slipped and fell on the tile floor, hitting her head on the water fountain against the wall. I witnessed her fall to the ground, saw a large gash on her forehead and blood flowing down her face and onto the floor as she laid on the ground. The crowd gathered in a circle around her, not wanting to touch her.

I could not understand what was happening, why no one was wanting to help her? I had to make my way through the spectators to reach her. So, I grabbed her, turned her over, elevated her head and held her in my lap, applying pressure to the bleeding wound with a cloth until the ambulance arrived. That day I learned something about who I am: I have a deep desire to help others. I discovered that day I wanted to be a healthcare professional.

At that time my mother was an office manager of a dental practice; I can thank her for exposing me to the option of serving others in the field of dentistry. During my senior year of high school, I worked as a dental assistant, confirming my desire to dedicate my career to the oral health profession.

New Field of Focus

After many years of working as a dental hygienist in private practice, my eyes were opened to a new field of focus as I read articles on orofacial myofunctional therapy in my RDH Magazine. As a mother of a son who was snoring and grinding his teeth, and had airway, breathing and speech issues, it was eye-opening learning about orofacial myofunctional disorders. It helped me connect the dots of what our son was struggling with, to see the root cause of his struggles, and find the life-transforming solutions that resolved his airway and orofacial dysfunctions!

Doing more research on the field of Orofacial Myofunctional Therapy, I discovered organizations that have advanced training for dental hygienists, dentists and speech pathologists. My journey in my oral health profession changed after I took advanced training with the International Association of Orofacial Myology (IAOM). After many hours of additional courses, an IAOM board exam and an onsite exam, I earned the recognition of being a Certified Orofacial Myologist.

Oral structure, function and behavior are three fundamentals of oral health. Like a three-legged stool, they are all important to maintain balance and health. This newfound understanding caused me to pause and reflect back over the 30 years as a dental hygienist with the feeling that I missed the red flags of airway, sleep and myofunctional disorders with my patients.

It is my goal to share my journey to inspire and ignite a passion among dental health professionals regarding the essential role they have in the overall health and wellness of our community.

As oral health professionals, we have an opportunity to:

Evaluate: Look for the WHY, the root cause of airway, breathing and oral dysfunction.

Educate: Teach about the importance of slow, soft, diaphragmic nasal breathing and tongue resting on the roof of the mouth.

Collaborate: Work with an integrative team of medical and dental professionals.

Dentists, orthodontists, oral surgeons and physicians refer patients to me to evaluate the oral dysfunction and impacts on craniofacial development, orthodontic retention and breathing. With each case I feel like a detective, trying to solve the why, by evaluating their oral function and developing an integrative treatment plan to reach their individualized goals.

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” – Helen Keller

I will never forget the day Christina entered my office looking for answers.

She continued to tell me about her struggles. “I want to improve my sleep, reduce the chronic pain in my neck and shoulders, eliminate tongue fatigue and lisping when I speak.” She told me it was difficult to eat and to use her tongue to get food off of her teeth. All resulting in physical and emotional impacts on her life. Christina summed it all up with this sentence, “I want to strengthen the muscles of my face so I can sing and smile again, I want to sleep!” Then with her eyes looking into my soul she asked, “Are you the person I have been looking for to help me?”

After taking detailed records of her history, we did the inter-oral exam. Her exam revealed she had a severely restricted lingual frenulum, commonly called a tongue tie. Her tongue was resting on the floor of her mouth and she had limited distance from the back of her tongue to the soft palate (CL 3 Mallampati score).

During the evaluation, I watch her struggle to lift her tongue off of the floor of her mouth. I cannot imagine what she must be experiencing as a professional speaker, presenting to a large audience, with a tongue that can only function with excessive facial and jaw compensations. She explained, “I go mute during my presentations; it is exhausting.”

We discussed the importance of having an evaluation with an oral surgeon with whom I am teamed who specializes in tethered oral tissues. I knew she would be in good hands. We also discussed how before and after the release of her tongue tie, myofunctional therapy would be vital to assist her to reach her goals of healthy orofacial muscle function.

Christina had her tongue tie released with a lingual frenectomy in February.

At her next session, she was excited to share that it was a life-changing procedure. “I felt like someone cut me off a string, and I can move differently,” she explained. “I feel free. Before, I felt like a marionette connected to a string that was pulling me in directions I did not want to go. Now I feel like I can move freely without restrictions”. At her two-week post-frenectomy myofunctional session, she told me, “I am so proud of my tongue! It can move independently from my jaw, it can get food off of my teeth, I can speak without lisping, and I am sleeping better!”.

As I am writing this article, we are in the middle of quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Her myofunctional appointments are now all telehealth sessions.

During her telehealth session two months after her frenectomy, she was delighted to report, “It was a long search to find the path to resolve the issues that were impacting my life and career. I now have more confidence, increased energy, animated facial expressions and improved tone when I present to the audience.”

Changes due to COVID

At this time due to COVID-19 social distancing restrictions, her speaking engagements and lectures at the university are all online. The new online format is testing her endurance to speak for a long time even more. She shared with me how thankful she is for the ability to handle the increased demand for her oral-facial muscles with all the webinars, podcasts, online presentations and lectures. Expressed to me how thankful she is to reach her goals of healthy oral function and the life-changing impacts it has had. She expressed that, “The best part of this journey is that I sleep better, have more energy and feel better.”

Telehealth appointments have enabled me to continue serving clients who are searching for solutions to help their sleep, airway and myofunctional disorders. If you would like to learn more about what it is like to use online services in your practice, please feel free to contact me, cherylshafer@facialfunction.com.

A great resource for current HIPPA guidelines is: https://www.hhs.gov/hipaa/for-professionals/special-topics/emergency-preparedness/notification-enforcementdiscretion-telehealth/index.html

The article lists HIPPA approved sites:

  • Zoom for Healthcare
  • Doxy.me
  • Google G Suite Hangouts Meet
  • Skype for Business / Microsoft Teams

My passion for understanding the impacts of the airway and facial function has led me to places I never thought I would be.  From forming relationships with other dental and medical professionals all over the world to owning my own business, Facial Function, and to being a national speaker. It feels so good to say, “I love my job!”. I am blessed to have found my purpose which is to help others find the root cause of their myofunctional disorders, to breathe through their nose, to sleep better and to be their best self. Witnessing the life transformations the myofunctional clients have made, serving clients both online and in-person, has breathed new life into my career.

“To know even one life has breathed easier because you lived. This is to have succeeded”- Ralph Waldo Emerson

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