Hygienist Nose Ring

From orthopedic surgery to dental hygiene: How I found my purpose as an RDH

Sept. 24, 2013
When I was in fifth grade, I made up my mind to go to medical school and become an orthopedic surgeon. When I reached my senior year of high school and started thinking about my future with my boyfriend and how we'd have to postpone our life together if I went through medical school, I started rethinking my options.

By Heidi Gartner
September 26, 2013

Many years ago, when I was in fifth grade, I broke my leg. It was a bad break that required a cast up to my hip and visits to the orthopedic surgeon at Chicago Children’s Hospital every two weeks to make sure that it was healing correctly. Instead of developing a dislike for hospitals and doctors, I became fascinated with orthopedic surgery. I made my mom buy me a computer program that allowed me to study the human skeleton, I checked out anatomy books from the library, and I made up my mind to go to medical school and become an orthopedic surgeon.

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I never considered any other career until I reached my senior year of high school. By that point I had been dating a boy for a year, and we were already thinking about our future. (He is now my fiancé.) I decided that four years of undergrad, four years of medical school, and then an orthopedic surgery residency would take so long that we would have to postpone starting our life together until we were in our thirties. I took another look at my options and concluded that oral surgery would be somewhat similar to orthopedic surgery and would take much less time, so I decided I would go to dental school.

Shortly after settling on this plan, I went in to see my dentist and mentioned that I wanted to go to dental school. He suggested going to school for dental hygiene first as it would introduce me to the dental field and also provide an opportunity for a flexible work schedule while in dental school. I researched dental hygiene and determined that it would be beneficial for me to attend a dental hygiene program prior to dental school, so I applied to William Rainey Harper College’s dental hygiene program and started classes in the fall of 2006.

I had always been in honor and AP courses and was used to being one of the top students in my class, so I thought dental hygiene school would be relatively easy for me. I was completely unprepared for how much work was required, and I quickly came to have a newfound respect for dental hygienists. Those of you that have graduated from or are currently attending hygiene school know what an intense and stressful ordeal it can be, so when I graduated in 2008, I decided to take some time off from school and just work for a while. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay in the dental field, but I felt that I was too intelligent to be “just” a dental hygienist. Over the next four years, I continued to take classes on and off, first considering pharmacy school, then medical school, and lastly nursing school. I finally reached the point where I was tired of taking classes only to change my mind about what I wanted to pursue as a career, so I resolved to just focus on the present.

It took only a few months before I came to the realization that the reason I had been unhappy was because I had convinced myself that I should be doing something other than dental hygiene, and I was surprised to discover that I actually enjoyed and was grateful for the career that I had stumbled upon. The flexibility of clinical practice allows for a fulfilling personal life, and there are so many possibilities outside of clinical practice, making it possible for hygienists to branch into other areas that they may feel more passionate about. I consider it a fortuitous series of events that led me to dental hygiene.

It can be easy to let your happiness be dependent on your vision for what the future should be, whether it’s who you marry, where you live, or as in my case, what you do for a living. From the age of 11, I lived with the expectation that I would be an orthopedic surgeon, and when I didn’t become one, I initially felt that I wasn’t living up to my potential. Luckily, I was able to realize the vast opportunities and benefits available to me as a hygienist and take advantage of them.

As Thoreau said, “You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.”

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Heidi Gartner, RDH, graduated in 2008 from the dental hygiene program at William Rainey Harper College. She currently works full-time clinically for a private practice in Chicago, IL. She can be contacted at [email protected].