A day in the life of a dental hygienist

May 29, 2018

Being a hygienist certainly isn’t glamorous, but it does offer its own unique rewards.

Dear loved ones,

It’s 6:30 p.m. and I just walked through the door. I know my scrubs are wrinkled, my hair is a mess and I have a complete look of exhaustion on my face. I likely have someone’s periodontal ligament hanging from my scrubs, prophy paste in my hair, my hands are chapped with hand sanitizer and I wear the tell-tale indentation of loupes across the bridge of my nose. I smell like a dental office and I look like the dentist from “Little Shop of Horrors” took me out on the town. I am completely exhausted and can only respond to chocolate or wine.

I can only imagine that you must be wondering what happened to the alert, coffee-guzzling early bird who sang “Have a great day!” while sashaying out the door earlier this morning. So, let’s rewind and find out what went wrong.

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It’s the crack of dawn and I’m awake before everyone else, ensuring that I have a set of clean scrubs and a lunch bag full of snacks to get me through my day. After hustling through morning traffic while getting caught up on Facebook posts from “Trapped in the Op” and my local Dental Peeps page (not that I condone Facebooking while driving!), I arrive at the office to find the office is low on masks (someone forgot to place our order) and one of our assistants is running late. Also, despite the multitude of certifications and higher learning degrees required to perform my job, I was informed in the morning huddle that I didn’t meet my “production goal” yesterday, so I need to work harder today. It’s fine; I’m a professional, I got this.

My first patient waltzes in 15 minutes late; she also needs to use the bathroom and wants a toothbrush and mini paste because she forgot to brush this morning. As I bring Princess Late-Magoo back to her throne, she proceeds to spend the next 10 minutes pointing to various restorations in her mouth to inform me of which ones have crowns, as if I’ve never seen one of those before or something? It’s fine; I’m a professional, I got this.

So, now I’m running behind, which is totally cool because my next patient arrives early for her appointment and is clearly annoyed that she’s been waiting in the, oh, what is that called, oh yeah, the “waiting room.” I get a passive aggressive mumble in response to my “How are you this morning?” and notice that my patient also has adult braces. This will be fun. She gives me the silent treatment while placing her arms straight above her head to aggressively text on her shattered-screen iPhone as I desperately attempt to awkwardly move around her to treat her ortho-induced gingivitis. It’s fine; I’m a professional, I think I got this.

My next patient is Mr. Jones. He loves me, so we’re good. My stomach starts growling. Turns out Mr. Jones needs an FMX and has a major gag reflex. The FMX looks like it was taken by my dog with his lack of opposable thumbs, but it reveals that #19 needs to be removed. I get to explain this to him because the doctor has already de-gloved so that he can water his wheat in Farmville. (Who still plays Farmville?! I mean, really?) My stomach growls more. Mr. Jones is upset because he’s been coming to the practice for years and now this?! I run to the back room to masticate a handful of cashews while using the restroom simultaneously. It’s fine; I’m a professional, BUT maybe I don’t got this. The front desk advises me that Mr. Jones wasn’t actually eligible for his FMX and wants to know why I took a full set today. I begin wishing I had super powers allowing me to turn water coolers into wine.

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I’m officially running 30 minutes behind and the schedule now reveals that the front desk just put in an emergency patient over my lunch hour because their gums “looked weird.” My next patient has the lips of Angelina Jolie and the temperament of an on-set Christian Bale. I spend the better part of my next hour holding the poor suction while Little Miss Lips makes out with it and/or moans for the chance to take it to Funky Town. To make matters worse, the cashews barely helped and my stomach is now in full whale-during-mating-season mode. It’s fine; I’m going to try to be professional, but I absolutely don’t got this.

I enter my lunch hour with about 12 minutes to actually heat up, eat and attempt to digest the twice-microwaved leftovers whose origins are dangerously unknown. The back room is full of assistants who are more enamored with their phones than having a conversation with any nearby human, along with the front office staff who each get - count it - 60 full minutes to enjoy their not-so-petite filet mignon surrounded by delicately mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus. I have 37 text messages, a missed phone call from our vet, a bunch of Facebook notifications and one grouchy attitude while walking into my afternoon. It’s fine; maybe today’s not a professional day, and I certainly don’t got this.

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My afternoon begins with Brenda from the front desk entering from the outside, drenched in Bath and Body Works’s Moonlight Path in an inadequate attempt to mask her cigarette habit. I spend the remainder of my afternoon dealing with patient notes such as “Patient doesn’t want to do SRPs, just wants his free cleaning,” “Patient in a hurry, needs to be out early” or the classic, “Patient does NOT want the floss lecture.” I’m running behind again, but this time it’s because my doctor has 45-minute conversations with every patient he examines. My patient won’t let me tip them back in the chair, so I spend the better part of an hour contorted like The Elephant Man while wondering if Mr. Upright sleeps sitting up. It’s fine; I think I’m still a professional, but I certainly don’t got this.

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I argue with a patient about needing to take his premedication even though it’s “just a cleaning,” someone refers to me as “the cleaning lady” and my loupe light battery pack begins to die. My patient decides to cure her periodontal disease with coconut oil, someone requests nitrous oxide for a prophy and I hold my tongue as my patient pronounces it “die-ah-bee-tus.” I wrestle a patient’s tense lower lip in a desperate attempt to scale his lower anteriors, I have to explain why the dentistry my patient had done in Mexico is failing and I work among someone’s perio breath, which can only be described as a cocktail of fecal matter and moth balls. I have to explain why fluoride isn’t a poison to a tobacco user, reassure my patient that the cavitron isn’t new and politely smile as a patient laughs about her non-existent flossing habit. It’s not fine; I’m done being a professional, and I for sure I don’t got this.

It’s the end of the day. I appreciate your text messages to check in on me, but did you really think I’d be done on time? I don’t think I’ve had a sip of water all day, my neck is killing me and I have a headache. The guilt sets in with, “Are you going to go to the gym?” or worse, “What are you planning to make for dinner tonight?” I realize that I lifted the lead apron and did the limbo with the X-ray sensor cord several times today, so no need for the gym and Chinese take-out it is! I get in the car to realize this is the first time I’ve sat down today where I wasn’t 8 inches from someone’s face, busy catering to polish flavor requests or smiling past the “No offense, but I hate the dentist” comments. I am drained.

While today was a wild day and tomorrow promises similar challenges and uncertainties, I’d be remiss to ignore the incredible moments that carry me from one ridiculous patient to the next.

Today I had the pleasure of celebrating a successful periodontal re-evaluation, high-fived my patient for improved pocket depths and smiled in approval at my patient’s recent electric toothbrush purchase.

Today I battled sugar bugs with the help of Mr. Thirsty and helped my pediatric patient pick out a toy and took her picture - cheesy smile and all - to be added to our “No Cavity Club” wall.

Today I comforted an extremely phobic patient who wouldn’t trust anyone with a white coat and a degree in dentistry. My empathy, kindness and support encouraged her to trust me. By the end of the appointment, she beamed with pride for conquering her immense fear of receiving dental care.

Today I treated patients who specifically requested me by name because it’s my smiling face, whacky stories and attention to detail that they appreciate most.

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Today I enjoyed congratulating my long-time patient on her engagement, ogling at baby photos of a patient who has struggled with infertility and acknowledging my patient for his new promotion at work.

Today I held the hands of my elderly patient as he poured his heart to me about his wife’s recent passing. I remained strong as I comforted him, listened to stories about her life and provided him with reassurance. I fought back tears as I archived his wife’s chart and realized I had lost someone that I had, for years, considered to be part of my family.

So yes, my dear loved ones, my career is incredibly exhausting both physically and emotionally. It isn’t glamorous, and it certainly isn’t for the faint of heart, but it is rich in heart and abundant in reward. I have the esteemed responsibility of connecting with people, improving the quality of life for those within my community and changing lives every hour of my day. For that, I’m incredibly grateful that I get to spend a day in my own scrubs.