The years and tears spent on attending dental hygiene school are marked with a high level of stress that hygienists know all too well. You are so excited during the first two weeks. You have the perfect planner to organize all of your assignments and quizzes. You have a locker, a cubby, and a dressing room. The anticipation of supplies, scrubs, and instruments that will end up filling these spaces is exciting initially.
By midsemester of your first year, you are exhausted and can’t believe you will ever get to the end of the two years. The second semester is a whole new ball game, actually touching live people. This brings on flu-like symptoms. The summer between the two semesters is a breath of fresh air.
Anxiety, though, kicks in after the Fourth of July, knowing you will have to come up with patients upon patients to pass clinicals. By the fourth semester, you are less worried about exams, tests, and homework; you have moved completely on to insanity as you struggle to find a patient for your clinical board exam and a backup patient too! It is amazing any of us survived this torment.
The most difficult thing about hygiene school
I am lucky enough to have been on both sides of this equation. I am a dental assisting and dental hygiene instructor at Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo, Iowa. Ten years post-hygiene school, I walked through the doors of my alma mater to put on a different name badge. I have been feared, loved, and bullied by students. I have been asked by many if I like my job as an instructor. Which my answer is yes, truly I do. I enjoy watching the students go from picking up their first dental mirror to smiling for their pinning ceremony class picture.
Possibly the hardest thing my dental hygiene students go through is filling their clinical chair with enough patients to meet their program requirements.
I have heard that some dental hygiene schools are able to provide enough clinical patients for their students. At my school, though, our students are only able to share a select few of school-supplied patients. Part of their clinical education is putting patients in their chairs to meet those requirements.
A light bulb moment
I have been there myself, sobbing in the locker room when a patient cancels last minute or doesn’t show up, or anxiously dialing number after number trying to fill an open spot on the clinical schedule. During one particular semester, my students had to deal with winter weather cancellations and delays.
One snowy morning, our college was delayed on a clinical day. My own children were at home; their school district had canceled for the day. I was faced with either having to hire a babysitter, so I could go work in my office by myself or take them with me. I have four children, four very active children. I knew our dental hygiene students would be scrambling to fill their clinical chairs with patients as the weather was not favorable.
I asked my kids what they thought about going and helping out my students and having their dental appointments. My kids are no strangers to a dental office. They’ve been in and out of dental offices their entire lives. Of course, my three older kids were excited to go see my students and go to my work. My youngest was skeptical.
We loaded up in our vehicle and set out to drive the 45-minute commute to the college. When we arrived, I had four lengthy medical histories to fill out, which took me nearly an hour. It was weird being on that side of the clinical reception desk. I let four students take my four most important people into our large clinic as I retreated to my office to work.
I admit that I watched the clock. I knew my children were very well-behaved kids. But there is still that thought of worrying about how your children are acting without your presence. It was nearly an hour before my first child appeared.
My youngest, who is five-years-old, was smiling and skipping in the hallway. When I asked how her appointment went, she simply replied, “Good,” and went to her promised iPad in my office. I heard from her hygiene student that all was well, and she did a great job.
My other three older children followed every half hour or so. Their entire afternoon, all four hours of the clinical day had been spent with the students. This is a completely normal routine for the students, but not for my children. I was worried about their reactions. Each of them came to my office with smiles and didn’t seem bothered. Of course, there were comments on how long it took and how different it was from when mommy had cleaned their teeth in private practice.
All of the students reported positive things and were appreciative of having their clinical chair filled for that snowy day.
Experience care from a student!
After mentioning this to a few friends and posting pictures of my kids at the college on social media, a few of my friends and family made comments about my “actually allowing students to work on my own children.” I was literally appalled by these comments.
I’d like to share my response to those comments. If you’ve never experienced an appointment with a student of any kind, you should. For one thing, we are all students at something at one point in time. All of the great medical minds started as students and have to continually practice. Our dental hygiene students spend hours improving their clinical skills with great instructors behind them. They are perfecting their minds with practice and patience.
The only downfall of being a patient to a dental hygiene student is the time spent in the chair. Yes, you have to have extra time to give. Students are learning and are not going to cut corners through a procedure. They are not working to a clock that tells them when their next patient is to arrive. They are not working toward productivity goals to increase their paycheck. They are trying to do the best job they can do in order to pass the skills that are needed for their requirements to move on.
I would trust these students and instructors with my kids over and over again. They have the passion and drive to do their best job currently; I cannot say the same for some of my colleagues who have been in dentistry for many years.
Everyone needs to experience an appointment with a dental hygiene student. I encourage dental professionals to help advocate for their area dental hygiene programs. Encourage community members to seek care at these local clinical facilities. Share your own time with these students, as you were once there yourself.
Everyone has to be a student before they can be a master. My kids enjoyed this experience. Of course, they will forever remember that snowstorm they got to go to mommy’s work and be patients for the students. They have even asked if they can do it again if there is a snow day this winter. To which I reply in my best mom voice, “We’ll see.”