When I chose the dental hygiene profession, I did so to serve people. I thought that providing patients with skills to prevent diseases, giving them brighter smiles, and increasing access to care would be the greatest job of all. I was right! On my journey to serve people, my patients have also served me. Their stories have changed me and continue to reignite my passion for dental hygiene. Taking the time to stay present in every patient interaction has allowed me to view patient care in a unique way.
Here are some of my favorite "gift of presence" experiences.
I will never forget the moment that my boss asked me to cut my lunch break short. I was working in pediatrics and we had an 8-year-old new patient who was adopted from Romania a few months prior to his initial visit. This patient had lost an arm in the orphanage and could barely understand English, let alone speak it. His new mom was nervous, hoping he did not have a mouth full of tooth decay. I took one look at the patient and greeted him with a huge smile. "Bună ziua," I said as he mirrored my smile. I had learned many phrases and oral hygiene instructions for a program in school that allowed me to travel to Romania to provide dental hygiene services. He told me about his new house, school, and pets, all while his mother stood over me with tears streaming down her cheeks. Never did I think that a trip to Romania would allow me to impact this newly adopted child in my backyard.
Another day, during the morning huddle, I was warned about a patient whom I will call "Alice." I was told that she was not a friendly patient and often complained about how her teeth were debrided. I smiled at the challenge, knowing that patients who are "pains in the tush" often act out of fear. I took the patient back and she started to list her demands. I asked her to tell me about her bad experiences in dentistry. She then told me about multiple implants that had failed within nine months of placement, her continually bleeding gums no matter what she did, and how she felt like she couldn’t trust providers. I listened to Alice and provided her with empowerment. I suspected she had undiagnosed diabetes, which was subsequently confirmed to be the case. Now Alice comes into the office joyful, beaming, excited to see us, and greets us with hugs. Alice has been a source of encouragement ever since.
I had the honor of working with a 98-year-old patient with all 28 teeth, with no bleeding, and no pocket depths over 3 mm. During her appointment, she informed me that she had marched in the streets of Boston in the early 1950s to increase the wages for women. I later learned that she was a best-selling author, published in many national newspapers, and previous dean of a school. Her humble laugh and gorgeous smile brightened the room as she offered advice on how to change the world.
I choose to not let office politics enter my treatment room. No matter what stress is surrounding me, such as shortened appointment times, tension between team members, or the office manager pushing the team to produce more, I consciously strive to not let it affect my patient care.
Every day that I am chairside, I am reminded of why I became a dental hygienist. Our profession is more than oral care—it is often a means of encouraging people who are stressed. Be present in the moment with your patients, and show them how much you care for them as human beings. In serving them, they will reward you as well.