Don’t Ask Me to Just Clean Your Teeth, I’m Here for More than That!

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When I was five years old, I had an epiphany. There was absolutely no way I could be a princess when I grew up because, unless you have a glass slipper, you have to be born into royalty. From that moment on, I was always that kid; the kid who wanted to be a vet, an artist, a teacher, you name it. There was even a brief period of time when I was convinced I was going to be a dentist. My precocious, little self was decidedly going to buy this ginormous purple Victorian floral shop in our town and convert it into a dental practice. In my defense, it seemed like a fantastic idea at the time.

When I hit high school, and graduation neared closer, I started to panic. What do I want to be when I grow up? Being someone who likes to have control of the situation, this unknown began to bother me. I tried to think about the future from a future perspective; when someone at my 20-year high school reunion asks me what I do, I will be proud to say that I…blank.

One day I was toiling away in my English class, and I happened upon a poem by Emily Dickinson. The poem read:

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

That was it. When people asked me what I wanted to do, I wanted to be able to say that I help people. I wanted to make a difference. It just so happens that at this point in my life, I worked at a dental office as a receptionist. Voicing my realization to my mother, she suggested I become a dental hygienist. After some late nights clicking around Google and several afternoons spent pestering the hygienists in my workplace, I knew this was the profession for me. I could directly help people in a healthcare setting I was familiar with. So, having made a decision, I pursued dental hygiene.

Eight years later, I consider myself quite fortunate because I truly look forward to work each day. I remember being so nervous when I started my dental hygiene program; what if I took one look in someone’s “gross” mouth and couldn’t stomach it? Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. I love teeth and all that comes with the territory. When my patients ask me if I like my job, I often joke that I am one of those weird people who genuinely enjoys sticking her hands into someone’s blood-filled mouth to remove bacteria. Whenever I find myself with a patient with calculus bridges and necrotic tissue, I get a twinkle in my eye just thinking about removing it; don’t tempt me with a good time.

All bacteria and gunk aside, when considering what it is I love most about my job I always think of the people. I love my patients. Sure, some patients can be a handful. There are always those that feel brushing twice a day is excessive or those that insist if disease does not hurt, it does not need to be addressed. But for each one of those vexing patients, there are always ten that leave me feeling like I made a difference. There are always patients who rejoice because, after months of periodontal therapy, their condition has stabilized. There are always children who hug me for understanding when their parent’s dementia does not allow for remembering my name or good brushing habits. There are always those who thank me for being empathetic, patient, or kind. I am a compassionate person, and I give a little bit of my heart to each patient. I can confidently say that I treat others the way I want to be treated, without exception. My coworkers aid me in this, and I love them for it. I love being in a setting that allows for productive team interaction with quality patient care at the core. We all work together to ensure we are providing our patients with the best care, and I am proud to say we achieve this goal daily.

When people ask me what I do for a living, I love to smile wide and proudly tell them I am a dental hygienist. What I do not love, however, is when they ask the follow-up question:

“What made you want to clean teeth?”

This is the part where I take a deep breath and bite my tongue. I usually respond with something short and sweet: I wanted to help people, I started as a receptionist, etc. What I really want to say is a bit more impassioned. What made me want to clean teeth? I am not here to just clean your teeth.

While it may be a layman’s phrase that is not entirely incorrect, we each know that “cleaning teeth” does not even scratch the surface of what we all do on a daily basis. The American Dental Hygienist Association recognizes six professional roles of the dental hygienist with a focus on public health at the core of our mission: clinician, advocate, educator, researcher, manager, and entrepreneur. We are healthcare providers, preventive care specialists if you will, who have elected to embody these roles and dedicate our lives to bettering the lives of others. We study dentistry from all angles so that we can deliver comprehensive care; we cover everything from the trace amounts of metal alloys found in amalgams and the branches of the trigeminal nerve for a reason.

Many people think that you just need a two-year degree to be a dental hygienist. It is not commonly known there are many semesters of prerequisite courses to tackle first and that many hygienists also hold baccalaureate degrees in dental hygiene and other science-based fields. Most laypeople do not realize we have to continue our education with required coursework each time we want to renew our license. They do not understand we are always striving for better and are constantly pushing our profession forward. This is what bothers me about the misconception that we just “clean teeth.” Dental hygiene is not just my job; it is my profession. Dental hygiene is a lifestyle, not just a career that is easily picked and successfully pursued on a whim. Once you’re hooked, you’re hooked for life.

I love what I do with all of my heart, but I am not here to just clean teeth. I am here to be the best dental hygiene professional that I know I can be so that I can do right by the title I have worked hard to attain. I am here for me so that I can be here for you.

SEE ALSO: From Patient to Passion: More than Just Cleaning Teeth

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Jillian Fitzgerald, RDH, BSDH
Born and raised in Southern New Jersey, Jillian Fitzgerald, RDH, BSDH, has always had an affinity for helping others. She first developed an interest in dental hygiene in 2008, when she began working after school as a receptionist in a small general dentistry practice. She was one of two high school students accepted into an accelerated dental hygiene curriculum at Camden County College, where she served as the Vice President of the Student American Dental Hygienist Association. She was granted her Associates in Applied Sciences in Dental Hygiene in 2012. With a constant passion for furthering her education, Jillian then obtained an Associate's in Art and a Bachelor's of Applied Sciences in Dental Hygiene from St. Petersburg College in 2015.

Jillian is an active member of the ADHA. In both her personal and professional life, she always treats others the way she would like to be treated: with kindness and respect. She genuinely loves her profession, and it shows in her sunny and gentle disposition. She wholeheartedly believes that laughter is the best medicine, and many of her formerly phobic patients would agree.

In her spare time, Jillian likes exploring the city of Philadelphia, trying new restaurants, frequenting the farmer's market, and reading. She currently resides in Collingswood, NJ.