The hygiene trio sisters

March 21, 2012

Ronald Reagan was president and David Letterman’s “Late Show with David Letterman” aired for the first time in 1982, the year Monique Judkins was licensed as a dental hygienist.

Ronald Reagan was president and David Letterman’s “Late Show with David Letterman” aired for the first time in 1982, the year Monique Judkins was licensed as a dental hygienist.

Fast forward to 2002 when George W. Bush was in the White House and the first American idol star Kelly Clarkson was topping the pop charts. That’s when Judkin’s sister, Christie Schlesinger, joined the profession.

Now a third sister, Bevin Houston, who had worked as a dental assistant, is finishing her studies and preparing to become licensed.

Having three sisters in the same profession is not without precedent. Just ask those singing Andrews sisters. But these sisters believe it’s unusual. 

“I think two sisters (in dental hygiene) is not uncommon,” said Schlesinger. “But three? I’ve never heard of three before.”

Like peeling back the layers of bark in a tree, the sisters have been witnesses through time to the way the field has evolved. Judkins, who lives in Orofino, Idaho, said increased awareness of the importance of infection control is one way it has changed.

“Back in 1982 not all dentists were wearing masks and gloves,” said Judkins who earned her degree at the Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls.

Other important ways in which it has changed include the awareness of how oral health impacts the entire body, and in the development of new tools for fighting disease. 

“There’s more knowledge of the link between bacteria in the mouth and how it can increase your chance for disease,” said Judkins. “Having your teeth cleaned isn’t just to make them pretty. It affects your health.”

According to Judkins,  it used to be that teeth cleanings once a year was the standard recommendation for all patients. Now cleanings may be recommended a minimum of four times a year for patients dealing with other health issues such as diabetes, smoking or a low immune response. There also are new tools for promoting oral health such as lasers to treat gum disease. 

Keeping up with continuing education and changes in the field is a challenge that Judkins likes about being a dental hygienist. She got into it because of a high school aptitude test – and because of her mother.

“My mother had recommended it,” Judkins said. “And I did some aptitude testing and I scored high on finger dexterity and eye/hand coordination.” 

Her sister Christie’s decision to become a hygienist came much later and was the result of a desire to change careers. She had worked as a nutritionist, but was drawn to dental hygiene because of its emphasis on prevention. She earned her degree at Lane Community College in Eugene, Ore. and got her license in 2002.

“I’ve always loved the preventative aspect of it,” Schlesinger said. “The more I learned about it, the more I knew I wanted to do it.”

Schlesinger likes teaching her patients about the importance of taking care of their oral health. She said it also enables her to share her knowledge of nutrition.

“I counsel them in nutritional awareness and it’s really effective,” she said. 

Demonstrating how she incorporates her knowledge of both fields, Schlesinger said she asks patients about what they eat and has encountered diabetic patients who skip breakfast. She talks to them about how they can avoid dips in sugar levels by simply slathering peanut butter on toast or grabbing some string cheese.

She also delves into other significant health issues that diabetic patients may face.

“If someone has diabetes they really at risk of periodontal disease,” she said. “That’s something I talk to them about.”

According to Judkins, non-surgical periodontal therapy is now that standard and wasn’t in existence when she did her training.

“They only did surgical therapy back then,” she said. “Now we incorporate antibiotics under the gumline. That wasn’t invented probably (until the mid-1990s) when my sister Christie graduated.”

While playing a role in prevention was Schlesinger’s motivation for entering the field, her sister, Houston, had already worked for seven years as a dental assistant before she decided she wanted to expand her knowledge and become a hygienist.

She also likes interacting with patients.

“I’m pretty outgoing. I’ve always known that I want to work with people,” she said.  

Now working toward an associate’s degree at Carrington College in Portland, Houston said she will also pursue licensure in restorative work, which will enable her to place amalgam and composite fillings.

“It makes you more valuable,” she said. “It will give me another marketable skill.”  

Houston said having her sisters involved in dental hygiene has helped her network and get to know others in the field. The trio also have one other to turn to when they need to vent after a hard day.

“It can be emotionally draining,” said Schlesinger. “Because we’re seeing patients who are in pain.”

They also find that the field is physically demanding.

“It’s a career where you can have back, neck or wrist problems,” Schlesinger said. “You really have to be in good shape to be a hygienist.”

It’s not unusual, the sisters acknowledge, for them to spend time talking shop. They also will meet for continuing education classes. As testament to their interest in health,  Judkins and Schlesinger even trained together for a marathon a few years ago, and spent much of the time with phones at their ears as they ran.

“I talked to Monique a lot,” Schlesinger said. “We’d talk about interesting cases we’d seen and about what we’ve learned in (continuing education) classes.”

Though each got into the field for somewhat different reasons and in different phases in their lives, they agree that have something in common besides being siblings. Providing the best patient care is what keeps them motivated.

“I like the connection with people,” said Judkins. “And helping them see the value of keeping healthy.”