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Rachel Alvernaz, RDH, is a 2017 graduate of Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, CA. She is a chronic over-sharer who wants to guide students and new graduates through the trials and tribulations of “being new.” Rachel is an animated and ambitious hygienist who can’t wait for what the world of dental hygiene has in store for her!
Every hygienist has to start somewhere, right?
Picture it: July 24, 2017. Sitting on my laptop at 11 p.m., refreshing the BreEZe website to see if my license had been posted. I had just passed my law and ethics exam two days prior and couldn’t wait to see the results of the last two years of blood, sweat and tears. Better known as, you guessed it, dental hygiene school. I am a young, fresh, new hygienist out in the workforce. Yes, I am new. BRAND new. I am essentially a newborn baby giraffe exiting the womb, learning how to walk. If you’ve never seen that, YouTube it.
Like most people who just graduated, I wanted to get out into the workforce as soon as possible. I received an email from a former professor who told us a local temp agency was hiring. I made the call the next day, set up an interview and got my first assignment for that next week. I was nervous, excited and, most importantly, dreading it.
My first day was, to my surprise, fairly calm. Yes, I was searching around my operatory like an anxiety-ridden squirrel. Yes, I had to ask a million questions. Yes, I had to learn a new operating system in five minutes. Yes, I was actually praying my patient WOULDN’T show up because the panic attack kept rising and at any moment I was afraid I was going to lose all bowel control. So YES, I was that scared. At the end of the day, I realized I could have gone without the panic attack because the day went surprisingly smooth.
So, I woke up for my second day ready to tackle a full day of patients. I was ready! I finally had the confidence to say, “I AM HYGIENIST, HEAR ME ROARRR!” The first two patients were great. I went out into the waiting room to bring my third back. I put my sweet, peppy voice on to say, “Ms. Smith*, come on back, we’re ready for you, my name is Rachel!” I almost called 911 right then because I thought Ms. Smith was having a stroke. She looks at me like I had about seven snakes coming out of my head, as if I were Medusa ready to turn her into stone. She looks me up and down. She looks at the receptionist and then back to me. At this point I’m sweating. What have I done to upset her within 30 seconds of meeting her? Then she says the three words that had been haunting me for the past three weeks. “You’re not Susan*.” (*Names have been changed)
Tell me something I don’t know, Ms. Smith. Being fully aware that I am in fact NOT Susan, I smiled sweetly and replied, “You got me there, Susan is out for the day and I’ll be taking care of you.” She finally gets up, reluctantly following me back to the room like I was leading her to her death. I could see out of the corner of my eye she was looking around the office locking eyes with the assistants. If I didn’t know better, she probably had a sign written in her dark plum lipstick saying, “send help.” Up until this patient, everyone I had seen so far had been perfectly fine with seeing a temp. I knew this was not going to be one of those appointments. After she hangs up her things, she doesn’t sit down in the chair. She stands at the edge of the chair instead, looks me in the eyes (for the first time today because she’s obviously too worried about all the snakes coming out of my head) and asks me this question, “Do you even have a license?”
Of course what I wanted to say was, “In dental hygiene? Yes, but I wish I had a license to arrest you right now for being such a jerk!” Yes, that was definitely a comeback of a 9-year-old. Instead, I kept myself composed and replied, “Actually, yes. I worked very hard to achieve that license. I have it laminated and its sitting on the counter, if you would like to see.” I’m guessing that wasn’t the response she wanted to hear, so she replied, “I don’t want to be seen by no TEMP.” The word ‘temp’ was said with such vile disgust as if I personally murdered her family in cold blood. Again, I kept myself composed, calmly explained that a temp hygienist is not a synonym for Hitler and asked if we could go ahead and take her X-rays. She replied with, “I guess I’m just going to have to deal with it today. The front desk should have let me know.” I went ahead and reluctantly agreed with her while placing the lead apron on her. I asked if she could open her mouth as I slowly tried to fit the sensor in. She opened her mouth about 3 centimeters. OK, maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit, maybe about 5 centimeters. I barely get past her premolars and she spits the sensor out of her mouth into my hand. “That’s not how Susan does it!” Again, I try to block out her obvious misplaced hatred for me and try to get a useful X-ray. In between her complaining and my lack of experience doing X-rays on difficult patients, the end result was embarrassing. These X-rays looked as if a 5-year-old took them. Scratch that, I’m positive a 5-year-old could have taken those bitewings better. I reluctantly take the lead apron off of her, put my loupes on and try to continue the appointment.
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I go to lean her back and instead of pushing the button to manually lower her, I accidentally hit a preset. It starts taking her chair back…and back…and back…and OH MY God is it ever going to stop? Here, I am frantically trying to push the button to make it recline forward, sweating and praying and all I hear is, “WHY AM I STANDING ON MY HEAD?” I finally find the button and her in the correct position where I can breathe again. I’m about to start scaling when she whispers, “Susan would have never done something like that.” She then proceeds to tell me everything I am doing wrong: not offering her a pillow, not placing the suction in a spot to her liking, not cleaning as well as Susan, etc. Basically, reminding me that I will never be like her beloved Susan. I am very familiar with the phrase, “Kill them with kindness.” If kindness could kill, she would have been clinging to dear life by then. There was only so much more I could take before I excused myself from the operatory.
That’s when I silently lost all the composure I had. The tears and mascara were streaming down my face with snot running out of my nose. I took those two minutes to let it all out, and wiped my face with the inside of my mask. The assistant that day rounded the corner and immediately saw me and mouthed, “Are you OK?” I gave her the “thumbs up” even though my eyes were saying, “GET ME OUT OF HERE, WOMAN!” She gave me a sad look as she disappeared around the corner. I continued back into my operatory and did what I was trained to do, give this patient the best care I could give. I truly now understand that every patient who sits in my chair will get the same excellent care I can provide. I finished the appointment with my head held high. She couldn’t see it under my mask, but my jaw dropped when she uttered two words I never thought I would hear, “Thank you.”
At the end of the day I felt defeated, frustrated and, most of all, disappointed in myself. Disappointed because I let the patient get the best of me and let her make me doubt why I wanted to be a hygienist in the first place. No, I was not prepared for a patient like this. No, I had never heard of a story like this happening to hygienists I knew. No, I am not perfect! No, I do not have 35 years of experience being the best hygienist on the planet. But YES, I had a great education. Yes, I show my patients compassion, love and respect. And yes, when the office manager informed me that my next patient cancelled, I secretly jumped for joy. It was nice to be alone, let out the cry I needed so I could move on with my day. It was a rough day and a rough lesson to learn. Not every patient is going to love me. Not every patient is going to listen to me. Not every patient will treat me with the respect I will treat them. Again, I am brand-new. Every hygienist has to start somewhere, right? My start may have been slightly rocky, but I’m starting to believe it was a good thing I experienced something like this my first week.
The point I’m getting at is nobody should be ashamed to be new. Yes, this is probably the scariest thing I’ve ever done! Throwing myself into the lion’s den like this, covered in raw meat. But with every day comes a new experience, good and bad. The good, so far, has outweighed the bad, and I will continue to dive headfirst into this lovely profession until the scales start to tip the other way. My only wish is that I had heard these horror stories from new grads while I was in school. I’m not ashamed of these stories, and other new grads shouldn’t be either.
The only sentiments I can give being a working hygienist for only a month now is that it will get better. We are human and make mistakes. We will not always be prepared, and we will have horrible days and great days. What we must never forget is that for every unpleasant patient, there will be a million pleasant ones. Oh, and always remember to wear waterproof mascara.