Finding my Passion and Purpose

In Impacting Patients, My Story, She's Touching Lives by Cheryl Shafer

During the day, I went to work, proud to be a dental hygienist improving the oral health of my patients. At night I would come home to my child who was struggling to breathe, sleep, and speak clearly.  

As a young mother, I would walk down the hall to check on my 2-year-old son, Rick. The sounds of snoring and grinding his teeth would greet me as I approached his bed. I could hear gurgling and bubbling sounds coming from his mouth.  My heart was in my throat as I witnessed him struggling to breathe and destroying his newly erupted teeth. As his mother and a dental hygienist, why did I feel powerless to help him? 

“Mommy, my ears hurt”, Rick would say between the tears. We gave him Tylenol to relieve the pain.  The doctors would put him on another round of antibiotics or put tubes in his ears to treat the symptoms.  This continued for the first three years of his life. During the surgeries to place tubes in his ears, I would ask about the tonsils that filled his throat.  they told us to watch them, that they were not infected, and did not need to be removed. He continued to be a mouth breather, snored, and was grinding his teeth at night.

My name is Wick

When Rick was 3, it was cute when he said, “Hi, my name is Wick.” Everyone thought he was adorable and would laugh. He did not realize during his sweet innocent period of childhood that they were laughing at the way he mispronounced his name.

“Mommy, why do I have to get pulled out of class to work on my speech,” he would ask while in 1st grade. “To help you to say words with the letter R,” I would explain to him.

He had lots of friends, and everyone knew him in his elementary school, so he did not feel the impact of his speech and myofunctional disorders. Then his life changed in the middle of 5th grade as we moved across the county from sunny San Diego to Maryland outside of Baltimore.

“Hi, my name is Wick”, Rick would say as he tried to make friends at the new school.

The other students would laugh and tease him for the way he spoke. This had a huge emotional impact on him. He continued to have his lips apart- breathing through his mouth, snoring like a freight train, and sounding like he was chewing rocks as he would grind his teeth at night. “Mommy, why did I feel like I had lots of friends in San Diego, and now I feel uncool and lonely?” he would ask.

My heart broke as I watched him suffer emotionally and physically. As his mother, I wanted to find the answers to help him. I took him to the pediatrician and the ENT for his ear infections and large tonsils, SLP for his speech, dentist for the grinding of his teeth, and the orthodontist for his underdeveloped maxilla.

Who specializes in the function of the tongue? Why were we chasing the symptoms and not connecting the dots?

  • Snoring
  • Mouth breathing
  • Chronic ear infections
  • Grinding of his teeth
  • Speech distortions, /r/
  • Low forward tongue posture
  • Underdeveloped maxilla

Would my story be different if there was collaboration?

It still breaks my heart that we did not connect the dots of his myofunctional disorders until the summer before high school. With desperation, I took him to the oral surgeon to see if there was a structural reason his tongue was not functioning properly.  At the evaluation, they told us that he had a restricted lingual frenulum under his tongue impacting his tongue’s function, commonly called tongue-tie. 

As his mother and a dental hygienist, why did I not recognize this! He was so excited to have a solution to free his tongue. Prior to the frenectomy, he was in speech for years and still could not say words with the letter /r/. After the release of his lingual restriction and when he worked with the SLP, and he could say his name after only three weeks of speech therapy. This small procedure was life-changing for him. 

I watched my son develop confidence and see his true personality come alive. 

The next month, Rick entered the halls of his new high school with his lips together, breathing through his nose and with the confidence that he could speak clearly. “Hi, my name is Rick,” he would introduce himself.  He was free of the oral dysfunctions that were holding him back. During his sophomore year, he tried out for the high school play and got the lead. He could stand on stage with the confidence his tongue could tell the story of Our Miss Brooks.

His senior year, he wrote his college essay on his journey. In the last line of his essay, he wrote, “Finally I can be accepted,  bare and even thrive in the act of speaking in front of others.” Tears ran down my face as I read what he wrote in his college essay about how he evolved from being bullied to being free to express himself and thrive.

How could I be an oral health professional and not be trained in understanding oral function or how to recognize a tongue-tie? 

I felt like I failed my child.

After he left for college, I was reading my RDH magazine and came across articles that resonated with me. Written by dental hygienists!

Now, my husband will tell you I am addicted to taking as many courses as I can on breathing, sleep, and oral function.  I have learned valuable insight into oral-facial function by taking courses, going to conferences, and collaborating with an integrative team of medical and dental professionals. 

If you’re interested in learning more here are some of the organizations whose trainings I have taken:

I dream of a day that our healthcare system connects the dots, that medical and dental workers collaborate on cases, and we look at the oral facial function as well as the symptoms.  This will change lives by diagnosing restricted lingual frenulums, dysfunctional breathing, and Myofunctional disorders as early as possible.

The fire in my soul kept growing.

I want to pass on the insight I have learned from the many mentors, articles I have read, classes, and conferences I have taken.  The understanding of Myofunctional disorders has changed my son’s life and mine. The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn. It has become my life’s purpose to help anyone who is struggling with Oral Myofunctional Disorders to find the path to connect the dots. What makes my heart sing is to see someone who is struggling to become a healthy breather and have healthy oral-facial function. As a National Speaker, I am teaching the dental team to recognize the structure, function, and behavior of myofunctional disorders. I am the founder and Myofunctional Therapist at Facial Function. 

It is with great joy that Rick is now breathing through his nose and sleeping soundly.  He is the successful young man I always knew was there behind the airway and Myofunctional Disorders.

I found my life’s purpose by watching my son struggle with the impacts of oral dysfunctions. Healthy oral-facial function is vital to our health and wellness, and I am honored to share my story with you.

Please feel free to contact me if you want to learn more about my journey or what it is like to be an Orofacial Myologist,