Trusting the process:  Is there life after dental hygiene?

In Inspiration, My Story, She's Enjoying the Journey, Uncategorized by Kandice Swarthout

I wanted out. I couldn’t do it another day and I needed out of the op so bad I couldn’t stand it. At the time, I had three herniated discs, I couldn’t lift my head off a pillow without help, and was suffering from the dreaded clinical burnout. The burnout was not a function of not loving my profession or office. My doctor was great and I dearly loved my patients.  This self-proclaimed dental nerd was taking a physical and mental beating under the demand of daily hygiene. After years of treating patients all day before heading straight to a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu gym, the disk in cervical 6/7 gave out. I was in chronic pain. For over a year, I was a champ at figuring out exactly how many ibuprofen it took to get through the day.  I fell in love with lifting heavy things at 14-years-old when my dad took me into a Gold’s Gym. Suddenly, I was restricted from most physical activity. I was devastated, in pain, depressed, and needed a fresh start. After 15 years in clinical practice, I set out to find life after dental hygiene.

What Next?

My parents raised a resilient girl which caused me to decide on a career change that provided options and flexibility. After a few years of dabbling in prerequisites, I landed on the decision to become a mental health therapist. Why not?  I had been wearing a similar hat as a hygienist for years. This presented itself as a natural shift towards helping people in a different way. It eliminated the risk of pain on my body and the opportunity to be my own boss.

Life as a Student

If you ever get an itch to be a counselor and take the plunge, buckle in that seatbelt. This is not for the faint of heart.  Just when I thought I was going to swoop in and save the world from itself, I was put in the hot seat. Counseling school is like being in therapy for two and a half years. Everyday. All day.  A constant reminder of all your unresolved issues. They are there, staring you in the face, waiting to be worked out. The worst part is working out all these unresolved issues in front of people you just met in the classroom.  One day you are going over the syllabus and the next you are discussing intimate details of your childhood. What the heck kind of cruel lesson was this? I was there to learn about the inner workings of other people’s minds, not my own.  There I sat, week after week, weepy-eyed and full of new insight about my own personal struggles, thinking “this is not what I signed up for, but I need this so badly!”

The Process

The weeks turned in to months and before I knew it, I was treating clients in a variety of settings. It sometimes felt unnatural as my cognitive nature interferes with what I call the “touchy-feely” side of therapy.  Thank goodness for all of the forced therapy-by-professor. Surprisingly, it created space in my heart and mind to be able to sit with others in their pain. I set my sights on a cute little downtown office and big plans to be on my way to private practice as a counselor. Not so fast, sister!! Got big plans?  Hold on tight and wait for them to change.

While in grad school, I worked part-time as a clinical dental hygiene professor at a college near Dallas, Texas. It started out with a half a day per week and quickly bumped up to 2 days a week.  I loved being there. The students and faculty were great and I felt at home. I am not going to lie, doing dental hygiene and teaching dental hygiene are two different things. Putting into words the skills that were second nature to my mind and body was a challenge at first. Not to mention, reaching back into the depths of my memory for terms I hadn’t used in quite some time. Nonetheless, I found it rewarding.

The Surprise Ending

With big plans for my perfectly HGTV decorated downtown counseling office, I walked across the stage and accepted my diploma in Counseling and Development.  Now, all I needed was 3000 internship hours and I’m off and sailing. Of course, I strategically planned how I could continue to stay two days a week at the college because it was so fulfilling.

Then it happened.  A bright sunny day after clinical lab, I learned that the director was retiring and it was hoped that I would consider applying for a faculty spot that would be opening! What?! Me?! The girl leaving dentistry? The girl that just spent 2 ½ years reevaluating her life? There was a big decision to make.  I thought over it and realized I had to give it a shot. It seems crazt that I went to school to leave dentistry, only to take a position in dentistry. Oh, isn’t life ironic?

And Now. . . Five Years Later

Since then, I have enjoyed the last five years teaching Community Dentistry, Research, and Clinic II and III all while using my counseling skills to ease student stress and anxiety.  In addition, this marriage of two professions has opened the door to creating courses that assist healthcare clinicians to improve patient communication and personal self-care.

As dental professionals, we perform an array of clinical duties, manage time like a champ, follow one million OSHA and HIPAA rules, build meaningful patient relationships, sell dentistry, and educate – all while looking fabulous doing it. Lather, rinse, and repeat eight more times. We put on faces to manage patient needs, whims, complaints, and pain. We may go through the day not being true to ourselves as we exhaust the energy we have left through the emotional labor it takes to provide great patient/customer care.  At the end of the day we can be physically, emotionally, and neurologically fried. While we are caring for everyone else, who cares for us? I believe we have a personal and social responsibility to engage in healthy activities that keep this work life from sinking us to the bottom of the burnout pit.

Sometimes we have to make adjustments to the life we planned to make room for the one that presents itself.

What Is Self-Care?

Self-care doesn’t just mean a massage once a month or fitting in a workout, it lives in true mental and physical wellness.  Sometimes self-care looks like branching out and creating a new life for yourself. Taking that chance at grad school or opening the boutique you always dreamed about. Perhaps it is taking a painting class or just a hot bath every night. Real self-care exists in everything from what we eat to how and what we think. Our thoughts are like a sixth sense that can easily control us if we don’t first control them.  It exists in our relationships, how we treat others, and how we view the world.

My lesson through this process is, well…to trust the process. Sometimes we have to make adjustments to the life we planned to make room for the one that presents itself. Sometimes we have to say “no” to good in order to say “yes” to great.  Through self-care, proper planning, reframing our thoughts, and sheer grit we can create a rewarding professional and personal life. Just trust the process.