A day in the life of a dental assistant: The Princess and the Pea

Every day is an adventure in the world of dental assisting. April Sluiter, EFDA, compares one of her "favorite" patients to the Princess and the Pea. Most assistants know the type.

Difficult Dental Patients

“Good morning April!” “Hello Helen the hygienist!” I then approach the financial coordinator, who mutters a barely audible, “Good morning. Anyone seen Doc yet? It’s time for the morning huddle.” The rest of the team points out that the doctor is habitually late, and they normally start the huddle without him. While reviewing the day’s schedule, one patient’s name gives me an uneasy feeling. Why? She has princess and the pea syndrome. “I’m not numb enough.” “My neck hurts, I need a pillow.” “Can you prop up my feet?” What makes it worse is she is our first patient of the day, so now we’ll probably run behind all day. And speaking of running behind, the doctor finally shows up.

Doc appears at the tail end of the huddle, quickly reviews the schedule, and exclaims, “Hey everyone, let’s keep it rockin’ and rollin’. Let’s reach our BAM!” There’s a half-hearted “yay” from the staff. It’s good for the team to hear Doc say these things, but we feel it’s an unreachable goal. But it does tend to keep us focused and hopeful.

Doc takes me aside to glean info from the schedule. ”You know the first patient is high maintenance, so get her a neck pillow and blanket.” I’ve done this every time the patient has come in, yet Doc has reminded me every time. “I’m way ahead of you on that one,” I tell him.

I walk down the long hallway toward the reception area, past the myriad paintings of fish and fishermen with their catch. (Fishing is one of Doc’s beloved hobbies.) I open the door to the tastefully decorated reception area. My high maintenance patient, “B,” is nervously wringing a blanket she’s holding, and signals to me that she’s almost done with her phone call. Five minutes pass, so we’re already running late. “I’m done,” she exclaims. “I brought my own headphones and blanket this time, in case you forgot to provide them.”

I bring B back to the operatory, ask how her family is doing, and if they have any trips planned. She informs me that they are going to Italy for two weeks, and that they’re renting a chalet in the Italian Alps. “How divine!” I say, and we exchange travel stories to help alleviate her anxiety. B takes a seat in the chair and starts to adjust the headrest. I immediately place a pillow behind her neck. “I can never seem to get comfy with your headrests,” she says. I attempt to adjust it to her liking, but through pursed lips, B announces, “I’ll be fine!”

“Feel free to put on your headphones before we start working,” I tell her. “Doc will be here in a moment.” Doc’s door is slightly ajar, so I knock and inform him we’re ready. He saunters down the hall to the operatory, and placates B by asking how she is. “I’d rather be anywhere else,” she grumbles. Doc reiterates this in an attempt to appease her. “Be assured you’re not alone. We’re not the most popular place to be.” Doc proceeds to ask her about her trip to Italy. “Oh yes! It’s our annual trip overseas. My husband makes sure we have the best amenities when we go on vacation, so we have a sweeping view of the Alps from our house.” Doc replies, “Well, you’re a very lucky lady. Be sure to bring in photos when you visit us next time.”

B enjoys conversations that center around her, and her focus shifts from vacation talk to her discomfort. “Are you going to get me profoundly numb? Remember, I feel everything!” she says in a condescending in tone. “Don’t worry B, you’re the boss!” Doc assures her. After about eight carpules of anesthetic and confirmation from her that yes, she is profoundly numb, we move ahead with the procedure. As we’re prepping for a crown, Doc notices decay on the neighboring tooth. “B, you have decay on the tooth behind the one we’re working on. Since you’re numb, we can do that filling today if you like.” B responds with a look of displeasure. “Let’s see how it does in a few months. I don’t want to pay for more dental work.”

As I turn around to the drawers to grab something, I can’t help but think, “How can they pay for an extravagant vacation, but they don’t want to pay a penny more for much needed dental work?” Doc and I manage to get through the procedure as B dozes off. She lets out a loud snort as she jolts awake. “Are we almost done?” she asks. “I’m about to put the temporary crown on, and then you’re free to go,” Doc replies. B gets up to leave with her blanket and headphones, and comments on how she doesn’t want to see us for a while. I inform her that she will have to come back to place the crown, and she lets out a long sigh. “See you in a couple weeks,” I tell her with a smile. I pass her over to the office manger to get her scheduled for her crown seat. I’m exhausted, already.

I know we’re already late, so I quickly wipe down the room, set it up, and seat our next patient, a crown seat. “Is this going to hurt?” asks the patient, “because you know I feel everything!” “It shouldn’t sir, but please be sure to let us know otherwise.” This is sounding very familiar….

We make it through the day, hastily but productively. I look at the next day’s schedule, excited to see that it’s neat and tidy. But then I see it. “Oh no, we’re short a team member tomorrow!” Oh well, the adventure in the day of the life of a dental assistant continues…

April Sluiter, EFDA, began her dental assisting career 17 years ago and continues to broaden her skills with teaching and writing for the dental profession. Her ultimate goal is to provide support to helping practices run more efficiently and constructively. She believes this is crucial for the benefit and well-being of patient care and staff rapport.

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