To say dental assisting in the United States is a world away from anything dental related in Third World countries is an understatement. Just ask John Hatfield, EFDA. His military dental assisting career has sent him to countries far and wide, and all of his visits have made him thankful he serves as a dental assistant in the United States.
He recently served on humanitarian missions in Panama and Africa. When he served tours for the Air National Guard in Qatar and Kuwait, his 2005 tour in Qatar was dental related, while his second tour in Kuwait in 2011 was for security duty.
“Typically a military dental tour involves one dentist and one assistant,” he explained. “We set up a location and people come to us with their dental needs. We see everything. If someone needs a root canal at 2 a.m., we gladly perform that service.”
The humanitarian efforts are a bit different. The two- to four-week visits involve 30 to 35 people of all medical areas. The dental professionals usually spend a great deal of time performing extractions.
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“We used buckets of Clorox to dip our instruments in,” Hatfield said. “Disinfecting instruments is practically unheard of in some areas. What was interesting in one location is that the villagers were paid to cut down the weeds in a field and set up our tent. It was a remote location an hour away from any town.
“I really enjoy the opportunity to help people, as well as see other countries,” he continued. “Those visits certainly made me appreciate the cleanliness we take for granted in the U.S. I had to take water bottle showers. And eating was nearly impossible. Whenever we would start to eat we’d be swarmed by hungry children, so we gave away most of our food. I spent a lot of time on those visits being quite hungry. We were scheduled to visit Africa again for a humanitarian visit, but it was cancelled due to budget cuts.”
When he returns to the U.S., Hatfield enjoys his position as regional lead assistant at Aspen Dental in Wilkins Township, PA, near Pittsburgh, where he’s been since 2008. He appreciates the flexibility of his employers, who allow him the time it takes to stay active in the Air National Guard.
“The dentist is very supportive of my training weekends,” he said. “They work around my schedule. I also like how much Aspen Dental allows assistants to do. Our office is great staying up to date on continuing education, and I do a lot of training of my fellow assistants. I enjoy all the different challenges.”
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For his military efforts and stellar work ethics, Hatfield was recently nominated as Dental Assistant of the Year by a fellow coworker. He was named second runner-up by the contest sponsor, Inside Dental Assisting.
When Hatfield enlisted in 1995, a career test determined he would be a good fit for the area of dental assisting. “I realized it was a good career for both the military and as a civilian,” Hatfield said.
He’s seen a lot of changes in his career during the last 19 years. When he began he felt the sting of discrimination toward a male dental assistant, and that has changed as more men have entered the field. However, he points out that he’s still been the only male assistant wherever he’s worked. In the military the split is more 50/50.
Hatfield advises his fellow assistants to take pride in their work, always give their best effort, and pursue continuing education. “Dental assisting can be a career, and it’s something they should take seriously. Especially today’s young assistants I’ve noticed don’t take the field as seriously as they should, something I’ve noticed that wasn’t as common when I began. I’m still learning, and I’m proud to be a dental assistant, both in the military and at Aspen Dental.”