Over the years I have so many stories I have never shared until now.
A few years back, a patient we will call Mr. Terry came in and sat down in my chair. He was a jolly, accomplished businessman who had not been to see his hygienist in a while. Once he sat down, I went through his medical history, performed a head and neck exam, and took his blood pressure and heart rate. I noticed his blood pressure was elevated, but that did not bother me as much as his heart rate. It was 111 beats per minute.
I asked him my usual questions: Have you been drinking caffeine, taking any drugs to cause anxiety, or are you scared of a woman with daggers in your mouth. (I asked the last one jokingly, if that was not obvious!) He answered NO to everything.
I told him I was going to start his exam, but I would like to retake his blood pressure and heart rate in 10-15 minutes. He agreed. When I looked at his mouth, I noticed his color was suspicious. His lips were dark red and purplish. He had some pocketing around his posterior molars that needed attention, and some localized scaling and root planning.
I told him about the link between oral and systemic health. I always explain this in a way that even a kid could understand. I explain how we have good and bad bacteria. They have babies, eat the food we do, then “poop” in our mouths. This is what causes cavities, infection, and disease. On top of that, if there are any underlying systemic diseases, it can exacerbate the issues.
That day my gut told me something was not right with this patient.
He agreed to have localized scaling and root planning. After examining him, I sat him back up to take his blood pressure and heart rate again. He had been in my chair 15-20 minutes. His second blood pressure reading was still elevated a little. But that did not concern me like the heart rate. It had dropped only one point to 110 in the 15 minutes sitting in my chair. His heart was working really hard.
I touched his arm to get his attention and told him I am not a doctor, but I am a professional trained to notice anything out of the ordinary. I asked him to go see his doctor today because I did not like his tachycardia (fast heart rate), blood pressure or the color of his tissues.
The next day, the receptionist came and told me Mr. Terry would not be making his scheduled scaling and root planning appointment. It turned out he was at the hospital having five bypasses. He told her to tell me thank you, and that the doctor stated that I had saved his life.
When I was in high school and college, I had worked at a veterinarian’s office for seven years. Working there taught me to look at tissues even more closely. Animals cannot tell you what’s wrong, so you have to look. I feel this, along with my training, has made me a great hygienist.
We think we are giving patients a gift by taking care of them. In reality, they are giving us the biggest gift: purpose! This is why I still practice and cannot give it up. Life is about finding your gift and giving it away. I know I have found that gift, and I feel blessed every day that I can give it to my patients.
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