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Dental hygienists, don’t ever let a bad day keep you down

Aug. 3, 2017
If you're a dental hygienist, you've probably had a really bad day—or two. Here's why you shouldn't despair over them too much. 

RECENTLY, I HAD ONE OF MY WORST DENTAL HYGIENE WORK DAYS EVER. I have been a dental hygienist for the past 12 years, so I feel like that is saying a lot. And of course, I didn’t even see it coming. We all have our good and bad days in dental hygiene, but this nightmarish day was definitely an experience I won’t be forgetting anytime soon. It made me like I was drowning in a sea of patients and I had no clue what to do to keep my head above water.

My schedule was jam-packed from the start, and our only dental assistant went home sick after her first patient. This meant we all had to pitch in to help the dentist with cleaning rooms and processing instruments for the remainder of the day. I wasn’t even feeling up to the challenge, but I knew the team needed me.

The morning was filled with one difficult patient after another, from heavy stain to tenacious calculus buildup. I felt like very few of these patients were being receptive to any of my suggestions concerning their oral hygiene. (Then, interestingly enough, I did have a new patient that was extremely receptive to my recommendation, and as a result had a lot of questions concerning her gum health and home-care instructions.) I felt like I was treading rough water and getting nowhere fast.

As the day progressed, I was getting further and further behind on my schedule. In the back of my mind, I kept thinking, “How could I possibly end up with such a horrific schedule?” For the most part, I schedule my own patients, so in a way I must have set myself up for disaster. Trying to keep a positive outlook, I was really hoping that the afternoon would turn around. Usually when I have a rough morning, the rest of the day seems to go much smoother.

My situation did not get any better after lunch. I had an adult patient with a full set of braces who didn’t want to stop texting, even after I told her that I needed her to put her phone down. Then, my next patient was her 5-year-old daughter who decided that she didn’t want to get her teeth cleaned because “it was no fun.” The girl’s mother said that said it wasn’t a big deal, because she only had “baby teeth.” I proceeded to explain why baby teeth are important. The mother seemed receptive to my explanation, but I failed to get the girl to cooperate with any part of the treatment. I felt totally defeated.

At the point, my muscles were really starting to tense up, and I was wondering how I was going to make it through the rest of that day. Usually I can find a few minutes to do some quick stretches, but unfortunately there was no time to spare as I was still behind on my schedule. I literally forced myself to keep going through the pain, which is something I don’t recommend to any hygienist.

My last patient that day was a 12-year-old girl who looked like she had not brushed for a month. As I was trying to give her oral hygiene instructions, I could tell that she was not even listening. For a moment, in my exhaustion, I wondered if the effort on my part was even worth it. It was the classic dilemma of the hygienist caring more for the patient’s mouth than the person in the chair. But of course, I persevered on and changed my approach hoping that I got through to her on some level.

This one bad day left me feeling totally drained. I felt like a zombie on the drive home, dreading having to take care of my children. I was wondering how I was going to get through the rest of the week, as it was only Tuesday. That night I went to bed feeling utterly exhausted and completely discouraged, and I slept like a rock.

The following day I woke up somewhat refreshed, not knowing what to expect from the next day. And then, something totally amazing happened that I was not prepared for at all. The next day was nothing like the last day. The next day was one of my best day hygiene days ever.

Some of my favorite patients were on the schedule that day, and they were more than happy to see me. My first patient and I chatted enthusiastically about gardening, one of my favorite pastimes, and I actually learned a few things. Then, my next patient asked me about my recent trip to Denver and I was so thrilled that he had remembered. I was quite excited to share my experiences with someone who cared. I had another patient who told me she just came back from Maui, one of my favorite places, and we compared our vacation stories over the course of her appointment.

All of my patients that day had excellent home care and I never ran behind on my schedule. I didn’t feel stressed at all through the course of my day. I actually even loved being at work that entire day. I felt like I was accomplishing everything I wanted to do and more as a hygienist . . . and I felt energized! I only wished that every day could turn out so well.

Dental hygiene is one of those professions where you truly never know what your day will bring, and sometimes the bad days can really get to you. In dental hygiene, we try to “suck it up” and not be complainers, but we are only human. We get so used to attending to everyone else’s needs, and put our own on the back burner. The point is not to focus too much on the bad days. Sometimes it is just inescapable component of the job, no matter how prepared you are.

I have had days where my schedule looked completely overwhelming from the onset, and everything ended up working out perfectly. And on the other hand, I have had days where the schedule looked like it would be a day of smooth sailing, but instead all of my patients seemed to be running late or to be having a dental problem. In the end, it pays off to have no expectations—you may be stressing yourself out over nothing.

I have found that the key to dental hygiene is to take the day one patient at a time, and to keep my calm as much as possible. As long as I am doing my best, I believe everything will work out, and if it doesn’t, worrying about it didn’t help either. In any case, my patients are getting the top-notch quality care that they deserve from a caring dental professional.

Sometimes I feel like I am not accomplishing much headway with my patients, especially when I get caught up in the moment. It is easy to let a bad day get you down. Sometimes I find that I make a difference in my patient’s behavior, but I don’t discover the change until the person shows up for his or her next appointment. It is all about perspective and sometimes we are just too hard on ourselves.

To all of the other hygienists out there-give yourself the credit for the awesome job that you do every day and keep giving the world your all. Don’t ever forget about the difference you make in the lives of so many people. It takes a special person to be a dental hygienist and I appreciate you. And you never know, you best dental hygiene day ever may be just around the corner. Hopefully, there are lots of them!

Editor's note: This article first appeared in RDH eVillage. Click here to subscribe.

Amber Metro-Sanchez, RDH, BA, has practiced dental hygiene for 11 years with Dr. Chris Bible at Comfort Dental in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She was a member of the 2015 Colgate Oral Health Advisor Board. Amber has been a contributing author for the Colgate Oral Health Advisor webpage since March 2016. She can be reached at [email protected].

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