dental-hygienist-heroes

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 four 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 time in the schedule and are worried that the check will take too long. Some are just intimidated by the process.

Please read my blog, This 6-Step Oral Cancer Screening Process Could Save Lives – DentalPost. I sincerely believe it will help you overcome any internal resistance you feel towards performing oral cancer screening with all your patients.

Don’t Be Shy. Get in There!

When I was out of hygiene school and started my first job, I did not 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 and pulse and do a full head and neck check 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!

This Story Still Chokes Me Up

The story about one of my patients gets me choked up, even years after it happened. This time, the source of my patient’s health issue 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 before the appointment and had not had any caffeine.

I checked his vitals again and laid him back for 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 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. So, 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!

Another Example of Action in the Nick of Time

One of our DentalPost team members recounts how her father’s hygienist became concerned when he arrived for his regular cleaning appointment. He was one of those diligent patients about diet, exercise, and hygiene. He always looked forward to seeing his hygienist and dentist. This time, his eyes were yellow, and his gums were inflamed. After taking his vitals, the hygienist had the dentist examine him. The dentist thought it best to transfer him immediately to the hospital, where this man in his 80s was diagnosed with advancing prostate cancer and received treatment for renal failure. He survived more years.

We Can Be Heroes – For More Than Just One Day

What a beautiful gift it is to be a caregiver! I am so proud of our community’s work to give people wellness, joy, and life (Literally!). It gives life to me and many of my fellow hygienists, dentists, and associates who share similar stories.

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

As dental professionals, 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, bringing meaning and purpose to our work.

Updated August 2022.

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