Get ready for the storm: Sandy survivor/dental hygienist talks about the benefits of leaving a 'comfort zone'

With all the worrisome news and preparations for Hurricane Sandy came some unexpected emotions. When we are forced to think outside of the box, regardless of the reason, we often feel more energized, excited, and alive!


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By Lori Bernardo, RDH

As I stood in my bathroom coaxing the last bit of reserved power from my electric toothbrush, I suddenly became aware of the deep reliance we have on familiarity and constancy. It was the day after Hurricane Sandy slammed into the East Coast, and our power was out. It was predicted that it could be seven to 10 days before it was restored, and I wondered how my teeth would feel after two or three days without power. As you know, those electric toothbrushes are worthless without power.

This was no ordinary hurricane (as if there is such a thing). The forecasters were calling it a weather event of “historic proportions.” Sandy was a Category 2 hurricane traveling up the eastern coast of the United States late last October. It was set to collide with a Nor’easter somewhere around the mid-atlantic coast. This unhappy courtship of a warm tropical storm and cold northeast winds was being dubbed “Frankenstorm” by the local news agencies. There had never been a storm of this nature in recorded history. Although no one knew for certain how it would end, we were promised heavy rains, flooding, and 60 to 80 mph winds that would surely leave widespread power outages to everyone in its path.

As news came of its arrival, we all spent the days ahead preparing to be without electricity, water, heat, and all the comforts with which we have all become accustomed. The store shelves were quickly emptied of their supplies of bread, milk, and batteries. People stood in lines outside the local home improvement stores, hoping to get in on the next shipment of generators.

Yet, with all the worrisome news and preparations came some unexpected emotions. It is hard to put your finger on it, but everyone seemed to be more alive, even excited! It was apparent to me that in our day-to-day lives, filled with constancy and familiarity, we can often get lost in the mundane. When we are forced to think outside of the box, regardless of the reason, we often feel more energized, excited, and alive!

Don’t get me wrong. Familiarity and constancy are good things. They allow us to feel safe and secure. It is what makes coming home at the end of the day so appealing. Those comforting feelings that you have, knowing that you can slip into your comfy slippers, sit in your favorite chair, surround yourself with familiarity, and then rest comfortably for the day.

On the other hand, these same things that comfort us can also be an obstacle to change and growth. As dental hygienists, it can be easy to fall into this trap. How many of us come into work and do the same thing every day? We pick up the same instruments that we have been using since hygiene school, use the same old tired ultrasonic tips, and recommend the same regimen for every patient. Let’s be honest, burnout comes on slowly. After a few years of poor patient compliance and marginal improvement, our enthusiasm starts to wane.

This can be especially true if you have been with the same practice for several years. Did you ever seat your patient, take the X-rays, finish the prophy, and call the doctor in for the exam, only to realize you never even opened the chart? We get to know our patients so well that sometimes we don’t even need to look at their records anymore. We remember everything about them. We can recall their dental history with the same detail that we remember their weddings, births, and losses.

This can be a good thing, as long-standing relationships build trust. But are we violating that trust by falling into the familiarity of treating that patient? Do we view them through the same analytical eye that we view our new patients? Do we fully chart their periodontal condition and recommend appropriate therapy, or do we simply hand them the same rhetoric about brushing and flossing, and send them on their way? Do we just come to accept decay and tooth loss as a part of life, likely brought upon by poor oral care and habits? Or do we complete a risk assessment, and offer some innovative approaches to preventive care?

This is an exciting time for our profession! The discussions about the oral-systemic connection are beginning to spill over into the general population. Patients are coming in asking about their oral health because they are concerned for the risk it poses for heart disease and diabetes. The existence of the AAOSH (American Academy of Oral Systemic Health) is testimony to its forward movement. Salivary diagnostics, CAMBRA protocols, stannous fluoride toothpaste, xylitol, oral probiotics, and new antimicrobial delivery methods, to name a few, are elevating the level of care that we can deliver to improve treatment results. We have the ability, to help our patients reach a realistic goal of achieving and maintaining optimal oral health for their whole lives. In the future, we will see more support from the medical community as a health partner for our patients, making that task even more attainable.

Any discussion about improving patient health is not complete without considering the health of the care provider. Did you ever consider why flight attendants recommend that you put the oxygen mask on yourself first, and then help the person beside you? We must first keep ourselves healthy and strong if we want to provide optimal care for those around us. Ergonomics must be a priority for you. Dental loupes, ergonomic chairs, “stay sharp” scalers, and piezo electric scalers are just a few of the tools that will help you stay strong so you can deliver quality care.

So how does change occur? It is a groundswell that starts with those of us on the front lines, battling oral diseases every day. We need to step out of our comfort zone of “familiarity and constancy” and start to bring these new tools into battle. Like preparing for a storm, we must look outside our box, gather up our supplies, and find innovative ways to care for our patients. There will be some obstacles. You will have to educate yourself, then your fellow staff members, and finally your patients. It is likely that there will be some resistance or doubt, but like preparing for a storm you will have the tools you need to overcome them.

As promised, Sandy came with a vengeance! The devastation was widespread, displacing over 30,000 people, causing power outages that lasted two to three weeks, and serious doubts about the rebuilding on our beloved barrier islands. But, we will rebuild. It will be different, but we will be stronger and better prepared for the next one.

Don’t wait for the power to go out on your hygiene career, and then wonder what you will do to keep your profession from falling into the sea. Plan ahead, implement the changes, and then reap the rewards of your efforts. Your patients will be healthier, your practice will grow, and you will have the rewarding and successful career you deserve.

LoribernardoLori Bernardo, RDH, is a practicing dental hygienist with over 25 years in the dental field. Her experience includes clinical dental hygiene, sales and marketing, lecturing and consulting. She received her degree in dental hygiene at Union College in Scotch Plains, N.J., and then went on to receive multiple graduate degrees from the school of “dental hard knocks.” She is also a CareerFusion member. You may reach her or (610) 360-9497.

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