Dimensions Brand Ambassador Carolyn Patenaude, CDA, BS-RDH, MSEd, discusses how a global pandemic opened her eyes to new ways to serve patients.
In late December 2019, I saw a news brief about a “new” virus that was spreading quickly in China. I remember looking at my husband and telling him, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” In the weeks following, I did my homework. I quietly researched and shared my findings of this quickly spreading disease with coworkers and friends. By early February, I was receiving daily emails from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. I scrambled to keep our clinical environment as safe as possible. I was not at all surprised that by the first weeks in March, life was beginning to rapidly change, and then on the morning of March 16, 2020, I learned something I never knew about myself before. I learned that a dental hygienist is nonessential.
So, what is the role of a dental hygienist? To me personally, a dental hygienist is so much more than one who scales and polishes teeth all day. A dental hygienist is an important member of the healthcare team. Harold C. Slavkin, DDS, a former director of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, past dean of the University of Southern California Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry, and member of Dimensions of Dental Hygiene’s Editorial Advisory Board once stated “The mouth is the gateway to the rest of the body, a mirror of our overall well-being.”1 For me personally, my role as a dental hygienist is not a job, it’s a calling. It’s a need to serve, a need to help, a need to be present.
It was this calling that kept me awake many nights while I was nonessential. I worried about my patients. I worried about reopening. What would dentistry look like? I worried about my safety and the safety of the community I serve. I even seriously considered not returning. After all, with 32 years of clinical experience, I could honestly say I’ve had a pretty good run. Why not let someone else deal with the risks involved in working through this pandemic? The answer was clear—I needed to return simply because it is my calling. COVID-19 reaffirmed my love for dental hygiene. I didn’t realize how much I missed it until it was gone.
FOLLOWING THE CALL
In the early weeks of my unplanned sabbatical, I submerged myself in continuing education classes. I spent 3 to 4 hours each day researching COVID-19, infection control, personal protective equipment (PPE), and new protocols along with a vast number of non-COVID related classes that I now had time to complete. Continuing education kept me going. I thought about how I could reach my patients and help them with their care.
As the pandemic marched on, I realized that I would be returning to a new and dangerous environment. But the call was still there. I started receiving texts and phone calls from colleagues who also were concerned. I realized that many were seeking my advice. I even heard from former students. I became a voice of counsel for others. The calling within me grew stronger and my desire to return grew deeper. I am a dental hygienist for a reason. I came to the realization that I could still be there for coworkers and patients even if it is different than before. I realized that you never know what life will bring. You must go with it. Change with it. You must follow the call. Honestly, that is what makes this career so much fun.
COVID-19 provided me with new ways to share my knowledge and enhance my skills. I shared advice with my fellow dental hygienists. I experimented with new PPE until I found what worked best for me. I explored new types of equipment. I even learned how to sew and made my own scrub caps. I felt like a new grad all over again. Others recognized my confidence, and I became a cheerleader helping us all to find our way back. The early weeks back to private practice were difficult, but the need to be there for my patients provided the perseverance to continue.
COVID-19 reaffirmed that dental hygienists are essential. Patients need dental care. The links between periodontal diseases and systemic diseases are widely known and understood. Periodontal health is vital to the prevention of diabetes and heart disease, along with a host of other conditions that are also comorbidities for COVID-19. Therefore, helping our patients maintain a healthy oral cavity, also can help them to stay safe during this pandemic. We are called to help.
COVID-19 provided other ways for me to serve. For years I have kept a professional bucket list. Prior to the pandemic, I had met all the goals on my list except one: I had always hoped to be published. I just never seemed to be able to get around to writing. The pandemic granted me the opportunity to spend time focusing on this goal. My bucket list is now complete. I also had the opportunity to create a video for the dental hygienists within the company I work for.
The pandemic reminded me that answering the call requires creativity. Dental hygienists must look beyond the dental chair to find their purpose. What can you do to make your job fun? What certifications can you grow professionally? In some states, dental hygienists can administer the vaccine. Our skills can help in a way I never dreamed of as a dental hygiene student so many years ago. Once again, a new challenge lies ahead, but once again we can accept the call.
COVID-19 has reaffirmed my desire to be a dental hygienist in so many ways. It forced me to step out of my comfort zone and in some cases, start over. I hope that dental hygiene students and recent grads will see that life can change overnight, but that we can change with it. When we change, we grow. We become the future. The way we practice today may look different than it did yesterday, but it may also look different than tomorrow. We do not know what lies ahead. Follow the call. Answer the call. Let the call guide you to make a difference. Remember, dental hygiene is not a job, it’s a calling.
- Bird DL, Robinson DS. Modern Dental Assisting. 13th ed. Philadelphia; Saunders:2020.