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Open wider, please

This week’s Southern Oregon Journal pays tribute to another sector of unsung heroes — those who provide a valuable service for us with little notice or fanfare. All hail the dental hygienist.

Come to find out, they’re not sadistic pain-inflictors, but caring individuals who value their patients.

Who would choose to spend the day looking into one gullet after another and picking tooth enamel clean? Sure, the pay is good. Dental hygienists in Oregon average over $83,000 a year, according to Indeed.com. It varies with experience, but even newbies make over $32 an hour.

Still, cleaning teeth? And now, with scary germs on the lurk at every cough or hiccup — daring to enter the epicenter of the danger zone? No, thank you. That’s why I’ve appreciated and respected every woman who has performed this service throughout a long history of dental experiences.

Hailey, at Shady Cove Family Dentistry, stood determined and poised to do battle against plaque in her flak jacket and welder’s helmet. It had been a while since my last teeth cleaning. Over the past year, each time my appointment cropped up, I’d push it out a bit farther because of COVID. I pushed three times but finally caved.

I spoke with two other hygienists about their job, why they chose it, and what they like best and least about scrubbing choppers. Lori had this to say. “I was a dental assistant first and loved it. I knew I would end up a single mom due to an unhappy marriage. I knew I would need to make more money to support myself and kids. Hygienists make about double assistants, and I already knew a lot about dentistry. That’s why I went to college for it. I love the relationships I develop with most patients, but actually do not enjoy cleaning teeth. It’s a way to make a decent living though. It’s also been hard physically on my body. I still love the theory of dentistry though, and I’m enjoying teaching dental assisting at RCC.”

Each time they surprise me at the dental office with a new gal, I inwardly throw a hissy. It takes time to establish a relationship, like with a hair stylist or therapist. Just when they’re trained to laugh at the right places in my stories, they pull the plug, and I’m forced to break in another poor, trapped soul. Of course, with picks and shovels in my mouth, the translation may be off.

My long-time friend Sandy has dedicated her life’s work to this profession for 42 years. I nearly fainted when she told me. She graduated from OIT in 1978, when it was OTI. For now, Sandy’s taking a break, but she still has her license. I asked her thoughts on the profession.

“I was a sick child. I liked to go to the dentist. So, I knew I was going to work in a dental office.” Like Lori, she misses her patients, speaking of the work as if it were separate from the interaction rather than an integral part.

“I miss the camaraderie, the getting to know them and their families.” Hygienists often feel, um, underappreciated. “I had a lady in Ashland one time who said, ‘Don’t take this personally, but I hate you.’”

It’s physically hard work. Both women mentioned the toll taken on their bodies.

Hailey had her work cut out with me, but she persevered and did a thorough and excellent job. She wrangled a large piece of Rubbermaid into my jaws like a pro — a new contraption used because of COVID, but she was gentle. Hailey felt bad when I teased her about having to stop for wine on the way home, but she’ll learn. She’s been at it for a year and loves her job. The best part of having her as my new hygienist —she laughs easily.

So, here’s a big thank you to all who tackle this less than glamorous job. It’s important and meaningful work, and you’re appreciated.

Peggy Dover is a freelance writer/author. Reach her at pcdover@hotmail.com.