Decades of Dental Hygiene: Dyslexic Hygienist Overcomes Educational Obstacles for Bright Career

Hygiene instructor, Rhonda DeMattei, and Lori Cackovic the night she received the Golden Scaler Award. Photo courtesy Lori Cackovic.

Lori Cackovic, RDH, BS, is a 35-year-old dental hygienist who has overcome many battles with being severely dyslexic.

In recent months, Decades of Dental Hygiene has interviewed Fran Tourdot, Barb Orth, Renee Ahlf, Kelli Dash, and Kym Dallstream about a wide variety of career experiences in dental hygiene.

Jensen: Lori, tell me a little about your family background?

Cackovic: I was born in Denver. I have one younger brother. I was diagnosed with dyslexia, and because of this, I attended private school from fourth through seventh grade. The private school helped me learn to read to an eighth-grade reading level.

My dad was in banking and in 1999 took a huge leap with a promotion that brought us to the Chicago suburbs. My mom became a stay-at-home mom and was instrumental in helping me find my way in school.

Jensen: Where and why did you go to dental hygiene school?

Cackovic: I remember in high school that I just had such an interest in teeth. My mom suggested dental hygiene as a career path in the summer of my freshman year of high school. After that, I could not shake that would be the right path for me. So even though my high school teachers and guidance counselor did not believe that I could do college, I persevered and was accepted into the local community college.

I spent several years taking prerequisite course work for the dental hygiene program, and I was finally accepted. I lasted one semester because I was not allowed the accommodations I should have had to succeed, and none of the faculty supported me. I researched and found that Southern Illinois University in Carbondale had two different learning disability programs.

Jensen: Did you then transfer to SIU?

Cackovic: Yes, I did. The learning disability program that I joined was called the Achieve Program. This program was in addition to the federally mandated program at every school. I took more courses and applied for the dental hygiene program.

I got a rejection letter for the dental hygiene program, so I went to my grad student at the Achieve Program. She contacted the program director. He suggested that I retake chemistry because it was getting close to being out of date. So, we responded that I was already tutoring other students in this chemistry class! In April 2006, I was accepted into the SIU Dental Hygiene program and started that same fall.

Jensen: You must have been extremely happy. What a story of always pushing forward. Tell me some memories of your experience in the program.

Cackovic: I remember the first day at orientation class where each student was to introduce themselves. I told my classmates that I had severe dyslexia. I would be taking all the tests/exams in a different location but at the same time. This would allow me to have the accommodations that would help me to succeed in the program.

This did cause some pushback from some of the other students. But I only looked ahead. At the end of the program, I received the 2011 Golden Scaler Award, given to the student with the best clinical skills, instrumentation, and patient care in the class. I received my bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene. About two years after graduating, I went back to the SIU homecoming. One of my instructors told me that I was one of the students who taught her the most. What she meant was that I taught her that students with learning disabilities just learn differently!

Hygiene instructor, Rhonda DeMattei, and Lori Cackovic the night she received the Golden Scaler Award. Photo courtesy Lori Cackovic.
Graduation from SIUC. Pictured are Mary (mom), Lori Cackovic, brother (Jack), dad (Glenn), and Juanita Schaefer (grandma). Photo courtesy Lori Cackovic.

Jensen: I love that. Where did you go next after graduation?

Cackovic: I immediately moved back to Golden, Colorado. I became a caregiver for my grandmother as well as a temp in many offices. I was very close to my grandmother, as she was always so supportive of me and the goals I would set. She passed away in 2016. There were several other family members who passed away at that same time, and I had a very difficult time coping. My parents thought that it might be a good idea to move back to Illinois.

Pictured are Lori Cackovic, grandma Juanita Schaefer, and mom Mary Cackovic. Photo courtesy Lori Cackovic.

Jensen: What made you stay in Colorado?

Cackovic: From the very beginning of my career, I got involved with the professional organization. In 2011, I was a delegate for our state meeting. I met so many other dental hygienists. I signed on to be my component’s treasurer. I helped revitalize the Denver Metro Component. I was treasurer for three years, president-elect, then president of the component.

I then went on to become president of the state of Colorado in 2017-2018. We worked to get the use of silver diamine fluoride without first having a dentist diagnosis. This was huge for access to care in rural areas and all over the state.

I also started my own practice. Colorado has independent practice for dental hygienists. This was a huge undertaking. Unfortunately, it did not work out. But I learned so much from this endeavor.

Jensen: What did you learn?

Cackovic: I learned that with a new business, you need to be more vocal, talk to more people, be more detailed in your planning, maybe start on a smaller scale. Don’t hold on to promises from others. Get it in writing. I am still planning to do something independent in the future — possibly mobile dentistry for the homebound.

In the meantime, I am enjoying my position at the Colorado University Faculty Dental Practice. This is a traditional dental practice for the school’s professors. I am also an ambassador for an electric toothbrush and have enjoyed this very much.

Jensen: Let’s redirect for a few fun questions. What do you do for fun? Favorite read? TV show? Social media fan?

Cackovic: I am an avid knitter and even design my own patterns. I make tops, dresses, and shawls. I would love to have one of my patterns published. I only do audiobooks and love comedy. I like to watch “Survivor” and “The Good Doctor.” I need to be better with social media.

Jensen: Do you have a favorite patient story from your clinical work?

Cackovic: I met this mom and daughter at my chiropractor’s office. They both were terrified of the dentist and had not gone in a long time. They were so afraid all of their teeth were bad. I encouraged them to come see me at my office.

I saw them for about a year, always gently pushing them to see my referral dentist for restorative work. I did use silver diamine fluoride as a stop-gap measure. Finally, after much handholding and education, they went and got their restorative work done. I felt so happy to have helped them get over such a big fear.

Jensen: Well done, Lori. What would you like to see done on our profession?

Cackovic: I’d like to see every state have a dental hygiene diagnosis along with independent practice. Legislation that would allow dental hygienists to work independently in schools, assisted living and memory care communities, mobile dentistry, brick and mortar, and especially hospitals. It would be fantastic for hygienists to have their own practices within each of these settings. I’d love to see more public education/promotion done by ADHA about what dental hygienists do and how we save lives!

Jensen: Yes. I agree. What are some things you can’t work without?

Cackovic: Loupes with a light. My loupes even have my prescription in them.

Jensen: Looking back to graduation and starting in the profession, what would you tell yourself knowing what you have learned?

Cackovic: That it might be a very rocky road to becoming a dental hygienist, but it is always going to be fun. Make education work for the patient. First, ask how they take care of their teeth.  Be a detective — a good problem solver. The answer is not always floss more! Find ways to help each individual patient on their own terms.

Jensen: So true. Lastly, give me three words to describe you.

Cackovic:  Introvert/extrovert, caring, and hopeful.

Phone interview date 1/2/2020

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Mary Jensen, RDH, MS
Mary Jensen, RDH, MS, has practiced dental hygiene for 38 years, including three years in Switzerland. She is the Lead Oral Care Specialist with the HyLife Oral Health Alliance—a network of dental hygienists that provide weekly oral hygiene care to dependent seniors. Most of Mary’s weekly clients reside in Memory Care Communities. Along with her passion for the overall health of seniors, is her passion for mission trips. Mary has competed over a dozen trips with Alliance for Smiles. AFS provides free cleft lip and palate surgeries. Mary has provided dental hygiene care on four continents and six countries. She is the recipient of the: Young Caring Clinician Award 2015; Volunteer of the Year Alliance for Smiles 2016; Philips Heart to Hands Award 2017.