There was a time, as a young college student, when I thought I had found the perfect career as a Dental Assistant. Somehow, I landed the job without any experience whatsoever. Looking back, that should have been a HUGE red flag. But I was optimistic, naïve and convinced that any job that did not require filing paperwork had to be an elite career choice. And really, just how hard could it be? All Dental Assistants do is hand the dentist the tools he needs and move that suction thingy around in people’s mouths. Right?
I was so excited, I could hardly wait for my first day. I even bought one of those medical smocks covered in bright smiley faces with toothy grins. This was going to be fun! And I knew I would be a success, after all, I am friendly and love to talk and the patients were going to love me. I could hardly sleep the night before my new career started.
When I arrived at the office, I was assigned to Linda. Linda was tasked with mentoring me and showing me the ropes, which started with sanitizing the examining rooms. Linda carefully showed me how to disinfect all of the surface areas. She efficiently moved through the room polishing the stainless surfaces and explaining all of the tools and equipment that needed to be cleaned. In a mere five minutes, the room sparkled. Linda explained that I would be in charge of disinfecting the three examining rooms in-between patients. And further, she warned that I needed to become efficient and fast because we would likely be rushed in the afternoon. No problem. Running a little alcohol swab over surfaces and laying out the dentists tools, this job was going to be a breeze.
The patients arrived and I kept busy cleaning the examining rooms, chatting with the clients, fetching dental charts, taking x-rays and making sure that the dentist and the other dental assistants had everything they needed. At then end of day 1, the dentist announced, “Tomorrow Janet, you can begin assisting me with a patient.” See, I knew I would rock this job.
Day 2 - got off to a bit of a rocky start. The night before, I had carefully placed all of the dentist’s tools into little sanitary bags and put them in the “Autoclave.” The Autoclave was this super hot ,drying, sanitizing wonder-oven that basically cooked all of the icky mouth germs off of the tools so that they were safe to use on the next patient. And I followed the instructions EXACTLY like Linda showed me. Only I forgot one teensie weensie detail. Turns out that the Autoclave has to have a timer set for 50 minutes, and if one forgets to set the timer, then the Autoclave continues to cook the tools until someone manually turns it off. Linda arrived first and turned off the oven. By the time I arrived, she had already pulled spare instruments to use for the day as the ones that I had fried were still glowing. I was fascinated by what happens to a sanitizing bag when it is cooked in a high pressure oven for hours. The paper bag maintains it’s form, but when poked with a metal tool, the paper literally vaporizes into a cloud of tiny particles. It was so cool! I tried to show Linda, but she refused to watch. She must not be a morning person, she was awfully grouchy.
I practically skipped into the examining room to assist with my first patient. I introduced myself to Bob and explained how excited I was to be working with my first patient. I explained how I’d never worked on any patient before and that he had the honor of being my very first! Bob wasn’t nearly as enthused as I thought he should have been. He actually looked quite uncomfortable and even a little sweaty. But no matter, nothing could ruin my mood. The Dentist came in and I flounced into the little whirly stool on the other side of Bob. Earlier, the dentist had showed me secret hand signals that he would use to communicate which tool he wanted me to hand him. This is one of those super secret dentist tricks that they use so that they don’t have to announce to the patient, “Assistant please hand me the long sharp probe followed by the eight inch needle.” I was concentrating so hard on making sure that I handed the correct tool to the dentist that I completely forgot that I was supposed to pass him the tools under the tray and away from the patient’s view. Oops! My Bad. But seriously, Bob jumping out of the chair when I handed the dentist the syringe was a bit melodramatic. He was a grown man. And demanding that I leave the room was particularly cruel. It was my first time working with a real patient. Looking back at the whole episode, he really should have been more tolerant.
Day 3 started out marvelously. I wasn’t allowed to touch the Autoclave anymore, so all of the tools were bright and shiny, and ready for the next patients. The dentist told me that he was giving me another chance to work with the patients and I was determined to do better. Surely I would get someone much nicer than Bob. And sure enough, I did! Chuck Jones was my first patient of the day. Chuck was very chatty and we had a great time visiting while waiting for the dentist to come in. And then when the dentist started working in Chuck’s mouth, he let me run the suction machine and suck up all the extra saliva and everything! And Chuck was such a great patient to work with because he didn’t have very many teeth, so there was lots of room in his mouth to navigate the tools. But I still managed to suck up his tongue with that suction tube a dozen times. You’d be amazed at how hard it is to avoid tongues and cheeks with those suckers.
After my success working with Chuck, I think the dentist was convinced that I was ready to be on my own, because Linda seemed to be purposely avoiding me. He must have told her to give me some space and let me prove myself. I was determined to exceed their expectations. While the dentist walked Chuck out to the waiting room, I raced around cleaning and disinfecting the room. Remembering what Linda had told me about the need to be fast and efficient, I created some of my own time-saving tactics. I am an accomplished multi-tasker, so I decided that I could work twice as fast if each hand cleaned a separate area. While my right hand wiped down the overhead dentist chair light, I grabbed the suction tube with my left hand and turned the machine on. I guided the suction tube around the dentists tray sucking up all of the fragments of fillings and metal left over from Chuck’s exam. I bet Linda never thought of using the suction machine to suck up all of the metal debris. Looking back now, I probably shouldn’t have tried to do so many things at one time. Because if I had done one task at a time, then the suction machine trick really would have been a great time saver! But when I reached up to scrub off a smudge on the overhead light with my right hand, the suction tube I was guiding with my left hand accidently landed in the dish that was filled with hundreds of tiny cotton pellets. The entire contents of the jar disappeared into the suction tube with a loud slurping sound and of course, became instantly lodged. And when they became lodged, the pressure building up behind the tiny cottonballs created an extremely loud screeching whistle. And the rest of what happened is really not my fault. Because who wouldn’t panic when an ear-piercing screeching sound is coming from the very expensive machine that you weren’t really supposed to be using for vacuuming up dental debris? I mean, wouldn’t you panic? And wouldn’t you think that the best course of immediate action would be to stop that awful screeching? Well, that’s exactly what I did. I grabbed a hold of the suction tube with both hands and pulled on the plastic extension tip as hard as I could. And it did separate from the suction machine. But it also propelled hundreds of tiny cotton pellets over the entire room. It literally looked like it was snowing indoors. And the next patient was arriving in mere minutes. Linda called tentatively from the other room, “Janet? Is everything okay? What was that awful sound?”
“Oh…nothing. Um, do we have a vacuum cleaner? With a really long extension tube? And maybe an extra bag? Or two?”
Day 4 -I was feeling less enthused. Linda wasn’t speaking to me. I still wasn’t allowed near the Autoclave. The dentist seemed very jumpy around me, and patients returning for follow-up care seemed to want to work with the other assistants instead. This Dental Assistant job was a bit harder than I had first anticipated. No matter how hard I tried, I could not figure out how to hold that suction tube in a patient’s mouth without sucking up their tongue, their cheek and I even sucked up the dentist’s pinky once. The dentist had me work on making denture casts, which I thought I’d be really good at. After all, I’m an artist, so surely I could make a casting of someone’s teeth. But that purple gooey paste was hands-down the most sticky stuff I have ever come across in my entire life. I bet you could use that stuff as ceiling grout in a pinch. And I have no idea how it got in Mrs. Smither’s hair. I really don’t. And I still don’t believe that it had to be CUT out of her hair. I mean, did her stylist even try to get it out? I’ve heard that vegetable oil can get chewing gum out of hair.
I was starting to wonder if maybe this wasn’t the career I thought when Linda called me over to give me a final task for the day. She was smiling. Huh, for someone who was so grouchy all week, she finally was coming out of her funk. Smiley Linda explained that my last chore was to clean the suction trap. At first I didn’t quite comprehend what I was supposed to do. So Linda broke it down for me, step by step. See, all of that saliva and stuff that the suction machine sucks up has to go someplace. And because the stuff it sucks up contains germs and potentially bio-hazardous stuff, it can’t just be discarded down plumbing or sewage pipes. Instead it gets collected into a little trap in the floor and waits for the rookie dental assistant to come clean it out. Linda further explained that I would have to wait until all of the patients had left for the evening and everyone was gone because the smell was so horrific and disgusting that no one would be able to enter the room for several hours after the cleaning without retching. She handed me a flimsy paper mask and a spatula. And that is when I made up my mind. I was not a Dental Assistant. It was not a job that leveraged my strengths, and there was no way in hell that I was even going near that suction trap.
It would be years later when re-telling the woeful tale of my short dental career that a dental friend of mine explained to me that the traps actually are self-contained and that one simply has to lift the sealed trap out of the floor, place it in a biohazard bag, seal and dispose.
“You mean there is no retching or horrific smell?”
“No Janet. No bad smell, no puking.”
“And you really don’t have to clean it out only on Fridays so that the place can air out and the smell can fade.”
Somewhere, there is an evil Dental Assistant named Linda preying on the dreams of promising future dental professionals, and I bet she is still smiling. Bitch.
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