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Meet a Real Dental Hygienist

Name: Elizabeth Lee

Education: Loma Linda University, Bachelor of Science in dental hygiene

Location: Silverado Dental Care in Napa, California

The Job: Elizabeth usually arrives at the dental office at about 7:30 a.m.—a half hour before the office officially opens. She needs the extra time to survey the day’s scheduled patients, review charts, and set up her instrument trays.

Once her first patient arrives, her work is nonstop. Ranging from 45-minute to one-hour sessions per patient, Elizabeth cleans teeth, evaluates mouths, and teaches proper oral hygiene.

Depending on the patient, sometimes she takes X-rays (if there’s no dental assistant available) and does other dental exams. Although she gets a regularly scheduled lunch break, the day is relentless until the office closes at 5:00 p.m.

Fortunately, Elizabeth never has to take work home, and her weekends are always free. Working only four days a week, Elizabeth loves her flexible work schedule. But she claims that the greatest reward is the constant and personal patient interaction that she receives on the job.

Words to Live by “I get to interact with my patient for an hour at a time, twice a year. I like to ask them how they’re doing and what’s happening in their lives. It’s a more personal experience that goes beyond just caring for the person’s oral hygiene. In some cases it’s an opportunity to witness.”

Dental Hygiene for you?

Consider Dental Hygiene as a college major if you're crazy about:
• interacting with people (and their teeth)
• working with your hands (steady hands are essential)
• science (mainly anatomy-based science)

Avoid Dental Hygiene as a college major if you get nauseated by:
• the sight of saliva (and other bodily fluids)
• the thought of repetition (the patients differ, but you’re still cleaning teeth every day)
• the smell of halitosis (Altoids, anyone?)


Dental Hygienist

"Once I pulled a chunk of meat out of someone’s teeth!" confesses Heidi Burt, president of her senior dental hygiene class at Loma Linda University.

I start to laugh hysterically—partially out of horror, but also as I remember my two years spent shackled in braces. In my silverware you could find everything from bits of food to the lost city of Atlantis.

“It’s amazing. Because they’re coming in to have their teeth cleaned, people think they don’t need to brush,” continues Heidi.

She’s telling me about the negative aspects of her major and is recounting a few of the more repulsive moments during her clinicals. As I listen to tales of bad breath and bleeding gums, I cringe and laugh.

Again, I’m ashamed to think of what my own dental hygienist must think of me—especially on those appointments scheduled right after my lunch hour. Especially on the days I forget about my appointment and order a garlic pasta dish!

“But don’t you have special masks?” I ask Heidi, hoping she’ll say that the smells fade with such protection.

“Believe me, some of it is so strong that it can’t be held back by a little sheet of paper,” she laughs. “We even have a little mint thing that you can put under your mask to help dissipate the stink.”

(I make a mental note to apologize to my dental hygienist!)Fortunately, Heidi also has plenty of great things to say about her major and future career. ”Dental hygiene as a profession is stable, flexible in hours, and full of options. As another bonus, dental hygiene career opportunities are on the rise,” she reports.

According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook from the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Statistics, dental hygienists are projected to be one of the 30 fastest-growing occupations.

“There are always pages of want ads for dental hygienists,” says Heidi. “It’s not that difficult to find a job after graduation.”

I continue to talk to Heidi about her career course—dental hygiene.

On Course: You’ve said dental hygiene is stable, flexible, and full of options. What do you mean?

Heidi: It’s a very stable career, meaning that dental hygiene isn’t going to become obsolete any time soon. The hours are really flexible, which is good if you want to raise a family.

Also, becoming a dental hygienist doesn’t necessarily mean you have to work in a private practice. You can teach for a college or university, do research, or go into community dental health education. This way, if one day my hands aren’t doing too well anymore, I have other venues to look into without having to go back to school and start over again.

OC: Are those the primary reasons you decided to go into dental hygiene?

Heidi: I’ve always wanted to do something that helped people, but medicine wasn’t my thing. I thought dental hygiene might be better for me. I also had family friends who were dental hygienists, and they gave me good insight. I did some volunteering at a dental office, too, so I could see what it was like.

OC: So define the work of a dental hygienist.

Heidi: In a nutshell, we clean teeth. We use metal instruments to go above and below the gums to remove plaque and calculus, which is plaque that has hardened and mineralized.

Our goal is to remove as much bacteria as possible, since an excess of plaque can lead to disease and cavities. We also educate patients to care for their mouths with good nutrition, brushing, and flossing.

OC: I spend much more time with my dental hygienist than with my dentist. Is this typical?

Heidi: Since most people don’t need much more than to have their teeth cleaned, we do end up interacting with the patients more than the dentists do. But we shouldn’t be confused with dental assistants.

Dental assistants assist the dentist. They take impressions, X-rays, and write notes for the dentist. But they don’t go to school for as long as the dental hygiene major, and they don’t clean teeth.

OC: You sound as if you’re already working as a dental hygienist, but in fact, you’re still a student.

Heidi: Here’s what the dental hygiene program is like. First, before applying to a dental hygiene program, you’re required to have two years of prerequisite work completed at a different school. So we’re talking about a lot of chemistry, microbiology, physiology, and anatomy—all the sciences. You also have to take the other generals, such as English 101.

OC: You should be good at science, right?

Heidi: Definitely. But that shouldn’t discourage people. I hated science in high school. But when I figured out the degree I wanted, I just grinned and got through it. My goal required science.

OC: So after two years of prerequisites . . .

Heidi: You apply to a program. It’s generally a competitive major to get into. Schools obviously look at your grades, particularly in science. But your life experience also plays a big part in it. You usually have an interview, and that’s when the school gets to see your personality and your experience.

After being accepted into a program, you’ll start with lectures and clinicals. Lecture classes teach you about diseases of the mouth, dental products, how to educate people on dental hygiene, and the anatomy of individual teeth.

You’ll also have to learn head and neck anatomy—everything from the neck up, including all the veins, nerves, arteries, and bones. Since you’ll have to give injections, you’d better know which nerves to numb.

OC: What about the lab part?

Heidi: My clinical program started by teaching us instrumentation. We learned how to use the various instruments on a fake set of teeth called a typodont.

It opens and closes and has soft gums, just like a real mouth. It helped us learn how not to hurt people. That was our first clinical.

OC: When did you begin working on humans?

Heidi: During our second quarter. We worked on each other and started on children, because they typically have less plaque and calculus. By spring quarter we had adult patients—real patients booked for us.

OC: How long do these clinical labs last?

Heidi: They vary from two hours twice a week to four hours four days a week. Sometimes we’ll have one patient for hours! We have to stop at certain steps and have our instructor check our work, so it takes a while.

OC: Sounds intense.

Heidi: It’s stressful! It’s a lot harder than people think it is, and it’s a lot harder than I thought it would be. The curriculum is a lot more difficult, and the standards are very high.

Grading scales are considerably higher than what I was used to, also. Most of our classes hold a 95 percent as the lowest A. But when you’re dealing with people’s health, you really have to know what you’re doing so you won’t cause them more harm than good.

OC: Is it true that dental hygiene majors don’t get a summer vacation?

Heidi: Yes. But between each quarter we have at least a week off. During Christmas we may get 15 days, and before summer about a two-week break. The entire program lasts for almost two years.

OC: What makes it all worth it?

Heidi: I like interacting with patients, and I enjoy helping them get their mouth in good health. Every patient is different and has their own story.

OC: Is this a good major for a Christian?

Heidi: Yes. I think that dealing with and caring for people as individuals is important. Christianity helps me be more sincere when relating to my patients while helping them live better, healthier lives.

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