When I’m in the right city, I have my teeth cleaned–for free–at a school for dental hygienists. The students are well supervised, and I feel like I’m getting complete and thorough dental care. Once a year x-rays are taken of my teeth, and there’s a dentist on staff who examines my mouth and consults with the student whenever necessary throughout the process.
I hadn’t been in the city for quite a while, and the last dental appointment I’d paid for had left me feeling traumatized, so my teeth hadn’t been cleaned in over a year. As soon as I was close to the city, I made an apppointment for a cleaning at the dental hygiene school.
One of the drawbacks of getting my teeth cleaned at the school is never being able to form a relationship with my health care provider. Ove the last six years, probably as many students have worked on my mouth, and I’ve never seen any of them more than twice. I don’t remember the names of any of them.
The skills of students vary. I’ve had my teeth cleaned by students just weeks away from graduation; as expected, folks who’ve been at it a while do a better job and by better job, I mean, cause less pain.The most recent student who worked on my mouth must have just started her training when I met her in December 2017.
Her name (not her real name) was Pansy. She seemed very young, like teenager young, which I guess she could have been if she had started training to be a dental hygienist the moment she graduated from high school. More likely, she was in her early 20s. She was pleasant as our first visit got under way, but I was a nervous wreck.
Dental appointments make me very anxious. I’ve had a string of dental problems in the last several years, so I worry about what’s going to be found when someone starts poking around in my mouth. Will I have a cavity? Is a tooth rotting away? Will I need a root canal? Is someone going to freak out about my impacted wisdom teeth or the cyst around the roots of the one tooth or the evidence of my once fractured jaw? Will someone recommend a treatment I can’t afford?
As our first session played out, I learned Pansy was slow and not very gentle. The x-ray process was painful because she shoved large equipment into my small mouth. (In the past, an instructor had come around to give my student hygienist tips on making me more comfortable during x-rays, but that day no one came by to give Pansy advice.) Once back in our cubicle, Pansy used the tiny handheld mirror to reach into my mouth and pull my soft mouthparts away from my teeth. She did the pulling with gusto; it felt decidedly unpleasant. When she had my mouth adequately opened, she rested the mirror on my upper gums, which caused additional discomfort. As to be expected, the pain increased when she started poking at my gums with pointy instruments. To make it all worse, Pansy was excruciatingly slow in her every process. I was in her chair for more than three hours during my initial appointment with her. Despite being on time for my 8am appointment, I wasn’t sure if she’d be finished with me when her class was dismissed at 11:45.
One of the steps Pansy had to complete was calculating my plaque score. She stained my teeth so the plaque showed up red, then documented on a paper chart every tooth surface with plaque on it. I peeked at the chart and saw there was a mathematical formula used to calculate the patient’s plaque score. Pansy crunched the numbers and gave me my result: 39%. This score was higher than the dental powers-that-be thought it should be, so Pansy began interrogating me.
Did I floss?
At least once a day.
Could I show her my technique?
She handed me a length of dental floss, and I demonstrated my flossing technique.
Your technique is pretty good, she conceeded. She seemed perplexed about how to solve this plaque problem.
Have you ever thought about using an electric toothbrush? she asked.
I said no.
Why not? she demanded.
I should have said, because no one ever suggested it to me, which was the truth. Instead I said, because I spend a lot of my time in places with no electricity, which was also the truth.
Have you ever thought about getting a power generator? Pansy asked me.
I busted out laughing. I thought she was joking. I looked over at her and she was looking at me expectantly, completely serious.
(Later, when I discovered battery powered spin brushes, I wondered why she hadn’t suggested one of those instead of going directly to a noisy, costly solution.)
When it came time to make our next appointment, Pansy offered me a date, recanted her offer, then offered me a different date. When I said that date was fine (although a month away), she didn’t have an appointment card to give to me after writing down the date and time. She ended up using the school’s regular business card and writing the date of my appoitment on the back.
The next day the clinic’s office manager called me saying Pansy had not given me an appointment and tried to give me one on the date Pansy had first mentioned. When I explained Pansy had already given me an appointment for a different date, the office manager said the student hadn’t put any information about my appointment in the system. I assured her I did have an appointment and we said goodbye. She called me later and left a message saying she’d tracked down the student and confirmed the appointment. Now I was in the system.
I spent the next month dreading my upcoming appointment with Pansy. It was going to hurt, and it was going to take forever, I knew. On several occasions I considered canceling the appointment. In the end I stuck with it becasue free trumped painful and inconvenient.
On the mornig of my second appointment with Pansy, I arrived a the appointed hour. I was not happy to see her. I couldn’t tell how she felt about seeing me.
She did seem glad when she calculated my plaque score and found it had dropped a whopping 23%! I told her I’d gotten a battery powered toothbrush and it really seemed to be making a difference. Thanks for the good advice, Pansy!
At on point in the procedure, I thought I detected Pansy shaking. I figured I must have imagined it until I heard her whisper, You got this. My heart melted for the woman. Here she was, trying to get schooling so she could get a decent job, and she was nervous enough to shake. I don’t know if she even realized the pep talk she was giving herself was audible to me. Maybe she thought she’d whispered You got this in the privacy of her own brain. In any case, I bucked up and tried not to complain so she could do what needed to be done. I knew we both wanted to get out of there.
I saw Pansy once more. She had me on an every-three-month cleaning schedule, which was ok with me since I wasn’t paying for anything. What a difference three months of practice had made for Pansy. She appeared much less nervous and much more confident. When her instructor asked questions about her work, Pansy answered immediately and confidentally instead of thinking for a long time then answering softly. She worked at a brisker pace, and I would have been out of there in under three hours if the instructor hadn’t been delayed when Pansy was ready for the woman to check her work. She did still wield the mirror like a pry bar, but I guess no one is perfect.
Pansy told me she graduates in December 2018. I think with another nine months of practice, she’s certain to make a fine hygienest.