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Hygienist Heroes: The Power to Save Lives

Posted November 15, 2019

Tonya Lanthier, RDH

A Brush with Fame

Because I am passionate about improving the lives of dental professionals and our industry, I spend a lot of time in airports traveling to conferences to meet with all kinds of dental professionals, including my fellow hygienists. Along the way, I also get to meet interesting people who aren’t in our line of work.

One of my more memorable encounters was when I got upgraded to first-class and seated next to actor Michael Douglas!

He turned to me and said, “Hi I’m Michael.” It didn’t even occur to me to acknowledge his fame. At that moment, he just seemed like an old familiar friend. And, looking back, I think this is maybe what got him to be so open and chatty with me.

When he asked me what I do, I proudly told him I was a dental hygienist and entrepreneur. He shared with me his now-famous story of throat cancer, and how important he believed hygienists and dentists are in the early diagnosis of oral cancer – especially lately, given the rise of human papillomavirus (HPV) cases in younger generations. If Michael had a head and neck screening, he could have avoided the suffering and scare of a late-stage 4 cancer battle. Michael Douglas may not be a hero (he just plays one on TV), but he certainly is a kind and lovely person.

A Call to Care

Our profession has helped countless patients detect health issues before they become life-threatening, but we can do so much more by being committed to head and neck checks as standard protocol in our practices. Studies show that only 25% of dental practitioners provide their patients with this invaluable, life-saving service!

Why is that percentage so low? Some new dental hygienists may not be doing them because they lack confidence, or lack time in the schedule and are worried that the check will take too long. Some are just intimidated by the process.

Don’t Be Shy. Get in There!

When I was right out of hygiene school and started my first job, I did not really know how to do a proper head and neck check. It felt awkward, but my dentist helped me by showing me how to “just get in there and do it.”

Without exception, I would always check my patients’ blood pressure, pulse, and do a full head and neck check on every visit. It never took more than a few minutes, unless I spotted something wrong. And on more than one occasion over my career, something, unfortunately, was. 

I’d mostly find lumps – including a few golf ball-sized lesions on the side of the thyroid. Some were benign, some were not. One of my patients, whom I haven’t seen in 12 years, sends me a holiday card every year because my screening during our appointment resulted in the early detection of his thyroid cancer. To say it’s a gratifying feeling to know he’s out living his life with his loved ones is an understatement!

I’m Not Crying, You’re Crying

But the one that gets me choked up even as I write this, is the one where it wasn’t quite as obvious.

One of my patients came in for a regular cleaning. As I checked his vitals, preparing to begin work, I found he had a highly-elevated heart rate and high blood pressure. I joked with him, “Are you scared of a woman with daggers?” He said “no,” and answered the rest of my questions, confirming that he hadn’t been active or anxious prior to the appointment and had not had any caffeine.

I checked his vitals again and laid him back to perform a light exam. Using the probe, I noticed his tissue was boggy, and his mouth and lips showed a deep reddish, nearly purple color. I examined him and told him he would need some localized root planing and scaling on a few of his posterior teeth. But my alarm bells were going off.

We set up his appointment for the next day and he headed for the door. But before he did, I grabbed his arm firmly, made serious eye contact with him, and said, “I’m not a doctor, but something is going on with you. I want you to go see your doctor today.”

I wasn’t sure he believed me. I paused for what felt like a long time and said it again.  

The next day, our front office manager informed me that he called to cancel his appointment… and to let us know he was at the hospital about to have a quintuple bypass surgery!  

We Can Be Heroes – For More Than Just One Day

What a beautiful gift it is to be a caregiver! I do not take it for granted and am so proud of the work our community does to give people wellness, joy, and life (Literally!). I know it gives me life and gives life to many of my fellow hygienists, dentists, and associates who share their similar stories with me.

For some patients, our trained eyes will be the only ones who see them regularly. With healthcare costs rising more each day, some patients may be seen less frequently by their physicians. And with phones in our faces all day, every day, we are less and less observant of each other and able to notice what’s “off” or different. We all need to see more and be seen more.

As dental professionals and people, we can be the eyes that look with care and love upon someone who needs it. Don’t we want that for ourselves, our loved ones and each other? It’s the gift that keeps on giving and the one that gives meaning and purpose to our work.

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