Monday, January 22, 2018

New Year’s Resolutions - Dental Hygiene Edition


Every January, the temptation to write a blog post on New Year’s Resolutions is almost overwhelming. But my own resolutions are off-limits because a) you quite rightly don’t care about my shortcomings, and b) I don’t have any (resolutions, that is). But I can’t exactly write about your resolutions because a) I don’t know what they are, and b) you don’t have any (shortcomings). And yet, here we are.

Today, I’ll offer up a single new year’s resolution that I think is the best combination of being a) undeniably worthwhile, and b) utterly achievable. Since I don’t know whether this resolution will apply to you, I’ll also offer the benefits of its polar opposite. And for good measure, I’m also including five resolutions that all dental hygienists ought to take on.

Part 1 - Take better care of your teeth

So here is your New Year’s Resolution: take better care of your teeth. Why is this a good one? First off, it’s achievable. We’re talking about spending just a few extra minutes a day, which can make a huge difference in your oral health. (I know … it’s impossible to talk about dental hygiene without coming across as pedantic and square.)

If you don’t always brush, and/or seldom floss, then it’s time to face the fact that your teeth and gums are probably disgusting. If your parents spent a fortune on orthodontia, it’s a shame that you’re taking such poor care of their investment. And if you didn’t get orthodontia, your teeth need all the help they can get.

On the flip side, if you’re one of those people who is so scrupulous about oral care that you think you don’t need to visit the dentist, think again. Everybody should visit the dentist twice a year. If you have insurance coverage, use it—this won’t cost you a thing, because your insurance company cares (possibly more than you do) about preventing expensive repair work later. (If you don’t have dental insurance, here’s another New Year’s Resolution: get a real job!)

My grandfather died a week or so shy of his 101st birthday, with all his original teeth. That was impressive. My father, who recently died a bit shy of his 81st birthday, was not on the right track. It’s not that he didn’t take care of his teeth—he was in the second category, thinking he was above going to the dentist. Well, I saw into his mouth a lot toward the end, what with trying to read his lips when his voice was weak, spoon-feeding him, and eventually, administering morphine. His teeth were in shockingly bad shape. I probably shouldn’t be admitting this, but I found it a bit of a relief (or at least a silver lining) that, through death, my father was escaping a looming dental crisis.

Yes, you should do all you can to take care of your teeth at home—flossing, stimulating (more on this later), and brushing. But you can’t go it alone. Dentists and hygienists have special tools that get your teeth whiter and cleaner than you can, period. If you hate going to the dentist, is it because you’re afraid and/or ashamed? If so, let that be your wake-up call. Do a good enough job with your teeth that you can walk into the dental office with your head held high.

But this resolution isn’t just about avoiding things like root canals and crowns. It’s about avoiding food in your teeth and/or bad breath. This isn’t some selfish New Year’s Resolution that only addresses your personal quest for self-actualization; you’re doing all the people around you a favor by not being gross.

I use a gum stimulator (see photo above) after every meal, to work the crap out of the nooks and crannies between my teeth. It’s shocking how much my gum stimulator dredges up—food shrapnel that brushing and even flossing don’t get. Once you become aware of this detritus, which you’ve heretofore been flashing to the world after every meal, you should feel an intense retroactive embarrassment for all the times you didn’t use this simple tool.

Part 2 – Stop beating yourself up about dental hygiene

All right, calm down, I get it—there are readers to whom the resolution above simply doesn’t apply. If you’re one of them, congratulations. For you I have a special New Year’s Resolution: relax and stop beating yourself up.

Beating yourself up? Yes—I suspect that, if you’re like me, and dental hygiene is your life, you suffer a lot when you go to the dentist. Not because your gums bleed—they’re far too healthy for that—but because you don’t get the credit you deserve for all your good oral habits. Sure, you do sometimes—about half of my dental hygienists over the decades have worshipped me like a god, and all my dentists have—but you probably get a lot of unfounded criticism too. Being conscientious, you let this criticism get to you … but you shouldn’t. It’s not you … it’s them. Which brings me to the final section of this post.

Part 3 – Five New Year’s Resolutions for dental hygienists

The way some hygienists go on about my perceived failings as custodian of my teeth, I have to wonder what they say to people who eat too much sugar, and/or don’t floss, and/or (gasp) smoke cigarettes or chew tobacco. Their lectures must border on abuse: “You filthy degenerate, you don’t even deserve teeth!” Or maybe they go easy on the less diligent patients for fear of alienating them completely, while saving their scrutiny for arrogant patients like me who think they’re all that.

Look, I get that being a dental hygienist is a tough job, and these people have a big workload without a lot of socializing at the water cooler to break up the day. Surely lots of patients are a bit stressed out, and those with neglected mouths must be tough to take. But that doesn’t mean some of these hygienists shouldn’t try harder to improve my experience. And so, here are my New Year’s Resolutions for this crew.

Hygienist resolution #1: Stop making shit up

I’ve fielded various complaints from hygienists over the years. Here are some examples: 
  •  “You are pressing too hard with the floss and slicing up your gums.”
  • “You aren’t getting the backs of your front teeth.”
  • “You aren’t getting the back of your 12-year molars.”
  •  “You’re brushing too hard and causing gum recession.”
  • “You grind your teeth at night. Soon you’ll have no enamel left.”
For years I took these criticisms to heart and tried to do better—but how can I, when my dental hygiene is already world class? Finally I decided to ignore these comments altogether, for the simple reason that there is no consistency to them. No two hygienists have offered up the same criticism, and no single hygienist has offered up the same criticism on two different occasions. Moreover, I have yet to hear a single one of these complaints from the dentist. All the dentists go on and on about what a great job I’m doing with my teeth; they praise me more vociferously than my own mom. I’m convinced that the hygienists, perhaps frustrated because they couldn’t make my gums bleed no matter how hard they tried, are just making shit up. So, evil hygienists … just stop.

Hygienist resolution #2: Stop making this My Teeth Cleaning With Andre

Why are hygienists so chatty? I guess it gets a bit lonely when you’re only interacting with patients, not colleagues, but why don’t you people understand that I cannot talk when my mouth is stretched wide open and has your hands in it? You ask me these open-ended questions and I don’t know what to do. Due to the crowding from your fingers and your instruments, my tongue cannot reach my teeth, my alveolar ridge, or my hard palate, so basically all I can do is grunt. If you’ve wondered why my description of my holiday plans is so terse and unhelpful, that is why.

Where things get especially frustrating is when you take unfair advantage of my situation to criticize me, secure in the knowledge that I can’t really defend myself. So when you say, “Oh, I see you’re a mouth breather—but then, you knew that,” you shouldn’t take my “Huh” for any kind of agreement. It’s just that I can’t be bothered to twist my head away to disengage from your fingers so I can say, “Look, if I mouth-breathed in my sleep, my wife would surely call me on it. If the bit of gum between my front teeth seems a little raw, it’s because I exercise in the cold morning air, a practice that I refuse to give up just to avoid the minimal damage it may cause to my gums.”

Hygienist resolution #3: Keep your monologue anodyne

Many hygienists I’ve encountered are quite happy with my minimal contributions to our conversation because all they really want is to talk. Perhaps that’s why they chose this line of work. I’m fine with this, so long as their chatter is low-key and uncontroversial. Ideally, I’d like to be able to sleep through it, since it’s so rare to be leaning back in a chair like this with my head supported and nothing required of me. So, hygienists: please don’t upset me with diatribes about, say, the sorry state of public education, or worse, anything personal.

One hygienist started off by asking my why my arm was in a sling (for this I had to twist my head away long enough to say, “Bike accident”), and then she moved on to how dangerous bicycles are and how irresponsible it is to ride one on city streets, and then—I am not making this up—she went off on a tirade about how hard it is teaching her teenaged daughter how to drive, because the girl just won’t listen. She lamented, “I told my daughter to take the highway on-ramp and she flat refused, she was like, ‘Mom, I don’t feel comfortable,’ and I had to yell at her and say, ‘Just do it!’ and so finally she did.” I was very disturbed by this: not only was this person a total psycho, but she was having some kind of freak-out, while holding a very sharp pointy object millimeters away from the softest parts of my mouth.

Hygienist resolution #4: Enough with the face shield!

When did dental hygienists start using the clear plastic face shield? This device is ridiculous. Okay, I get it, you don’t want to catch cold from a patient, but let’s think about this. You’ve got a device stick in my mouth continuously sucking every drop of moisture out of it, and I’m not talking anyway. Before these face shields, I uncomplainingly tolerated the risk of dental hygienists’ spittle landing in my mouth (assisted by gravity, no less), but you can’t seem to handle the reduced risk of my spittle reaching you and making its way past your paper surgical mask. Meanwhile your face shield makes you look just a little bit like the riot police.

Think about it. Flight attendants, despite being bombarded with cosmic radiation, don’t wear unsightly lead vests and trousers. They know the risks of their profession, and they accept them. Politicians work giant crowds, shaking hundreds of hands a day, and they’re not wearing single-use rubber gloves. For most of the history of dental offices, hygienists accepted the risk of germs—why can’t you?

Hygienist resolution #5: Stop being so stingy with the water!

Back in the glory days, there was a little sink next to the chair, and the patient got a little paper cup of water, and could rinse all that powdery residue out of his or her mouth after the teeth cleaning. If he or she wanted another cupful, he or she could just ask for it. Maybe that got too expensive, or dental offices are trying to conserve water or cups, because now that sink is gone. I grant that this isn’t the hygienist’s fault. But why give me just one little squirt of water from your little nozzle? Are you that concerned about saving water, or is this some little power trip? Why not hand the nozzle to me and let me help myself?

While you’re at it, how about giving me, say, a full five seconds to swish that water around in my mouth before thrusting the suction back in my mouth and taking all the water back? You give me like a second and it’s not nearly enough time. What, are you in a rush? Where was this sense of urgency when you kept pausing during the tooth-scraping because you got so into your monologue?

From now on, maybe I’ll bring my own water bottle to my appointments. In fact, I’m making that my New Year’s Resolution.

Related reading 
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