RDH=Road (to) Dental (professional) Happiness

Sherri Warshaw, RDH, CTTS, recounts her career journey from being a dental assistant/plaque control therapist in the 1970s to a licensed dental hygienist in the 1990s to becoming a Mayo Clinic Certified Tobacco Treatment Specialist in 2014.

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How did I get here from my career start as a dental assistant/plaque control therapist in 1972 to a licensed dental hygienist in 1995 and a Mayo Clinic Certified Tobacco Treatment Specialist in 2014?

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It was my career goal to become a dental hygienist, but the game of life had other things in store for me. Long waiting lists for dental hygiene programs were common in the 1970s, and I needed to start my career. I attended dental assisting college, and by a twist of fate, was able to get a job with a young dentist who was very motivated to teach me everything there was to know about patient education and four-handed dentistry. He currently teaches for Nova Southeastern University Dental School and I am so thankful to have had him as my first mentor.

Mentor No. 2 was a periodontist who hired me to run an intensive five-appointment plaque control program that his patients were required to complete prior to his performing the four quadrants of scaling and root planing. We worked together as a team and saw amazing transformations in the mouths of our patients as a result of performing excellent plaque removal on a daily basis prior to any treatment.

This practice was located in Coral Gables, Florida, and we had an international clientele. A high percentage of our patients were smokers. I worked one-on-one with these individuals and learned to motivate them to stop smoking and start flossing by encouraging and personalizing the treatment using empathy and patient-led motivation. My mentor was involved in the early stages of developing the Pankey Institute and the great Dr. Lindsey D. Pankey’s practice was one of our referring dental offices. The concept of comprehensive, compassionate, patient-centered dentistry was all around me during the years I spent in Coral Gables.

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Sherri at celebration of senior apartment building she helped go smoke free

Life took a strange turn and we headed north to Cincinnati, Ohio, and I discovered that I was living five minutes from a dental hygiene program. Once again I was faced with a wait list, but this time I worked hard on prerequisites, was accepted--and after many years of juggling family, health issues, and parent illnesses--I became a dental hygienist in 1995 at the age of 42. The moment I stood on that stage and took the dental hygiene oath, I knew that I was going to be able to impact my patients' lives because I finally had those three letters after my name that I had dreamed of for decades. I graduated at the top of my class and I was the college’s honor student of the year.

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I became a clinical instructor and worked in a periodontal specialty office and had the best of both worlds. Teaching students and treating periodontal patients was my dream career and I was able to hone my hand skills and my people skills. Once again, life intervened. After many years of practice my arm began to swell due to the lack of lymph nodes under my arm that had been removed during treatment for breast cancer. Mentor No. 3 was a periodontist with the kindest approach to patients and the ability to put the patient at ease with his calm demeanor. Giving him my six-month notice was one of the toughest moments of my career.

After a short sabbatical, the longing to help patients came back and I started to search for ways to morph my degree and skill set into a new career. I came upon the field of tobacco treatment specialist and discovered that the Mayo Clinic listed dental hygiene as one of the professions eligible to take the clinic's certification course.

After waiting more than a year and doing extensive study on my own, I attended the course and had the most amazing educational experience of my life. There were professionals from all over the world and so many disciplines. Apparently, very few people from dentistry or dental hygiene have gone through the clinic's training, so it was particularly gratifying to be representing my profession. Upon passing the certification exam, I was able to start my own company and venture into the new career of RDH/CTTS (Certified Tobacco Treatment Specialist).

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Sherri and her family May 4, 2013

My passion for helping smokers is driven by my own family’s experiences with the toll tobacco takes on the human body. I have lost four grandparents, two uncles, my in-laws, and my parents to smoking-related illnesses. Tobacco and nicotine addiction has shaken my family to its core.

My mother’s experience with tobacco-related illnesses is what drives my passion. At the age of 72, after 57 years of smoking, she suffered a devastating stroke and it changed all of our lives forever. She finally stopped smoking only to see her physician 10 years later, on my birthday, and a mass was discovered in her neck. The biopsy revealed a squamous cell carcinoma that had metastasized from her mouth to her neck, lung, and brain. Her fear of dental treatment and chemotherapy side effects took her life in three months.

In my role as an RDH/CTTS, I work every day to educate, treat, and advocate for a greater understanding of how tobacco and nicotine products are the most preventable cause of death in the world. It is a daunting task, but if I can save one family the suffering and loss that my family has endured that will make it all worthwhile.

Sherri Warshaw Fo Sherri Warshaw, RDH, CTTS, started Smokefree Steps, LLC, to use empathy, motivational interviewing and evidence-based medications to help clients become non-smokers.

To read more about smoking and dental hygiene, click here and here.

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