Series: “Voices that need to be heard, Stories that need to be told” by Sherry Saunderson, RDH


After decades of working within my hygiene calling, I have come to appreciate a quote from poet Muriel Rukeyser:

The Universe is made up of stories, not atoms.”

I so agree with this thought because it speaks to the fact that while the Universe may be constructed of atoms, what really gives life meaning is the stories we live and the stories we share with one another. And, the more we share our own stories and listen to the stories of others, the more connected we feel and the easier it is to appreciate the unique value each of us carries, making our lives richer and more fulfilling.

One of the many gifts I have received working as a hygienist is hearing stories from my patients. As we have bonded and deepened our relationship over the years, I have the privilege to bear witness to their lives and understand the context from which they view their own oral health needs and how their decisions in choice of care have been made and influenced. I have learned that if I don’t ask the right questions, I cannot receive the right answers that I need to create the most positive outcome possible for each visit.

Below is just one of these stories.


” Children may forget what you did and forgive what you said, but they will remember forever how you made them feel…”

Pearl was a middle aged woman who worked as a public health nurse. While she had dental insurance, she had not kept up with regular dental visits over the years. In order to work around her high anxiety in the dental chair, Pearl insisted on using Ativan (lorazepam) for sedation before each hygiene visit.

I found Pearl friendly and keen to follow any home care suggestions. I would explain what I was going to do and how I was going to do it before I proceeded. My patients always had permission to stop me at any time during the appointment if they had a question or needed a rest; we worked as a team and it was a collaborative effort.

There was nothing in Pearl’s medical history to indicate a cause for high anxiety so I asked if she could share with me about her past dental experiences and how she felt about receiving dental care. It was then that I learned that Pearl was raised in the United Kingdom and the dentist that her parents took her to used physical restraints when treating children. His chair had several wide belts that strapped across the legs and arms of his patients, holding them down so that they could not move. His assistant, or the child’s parent, would hold the child’s head still while treatment was rendered. No anesthetic was used, making the drilling and extractions torture. As unbelievable as this seemed, it appeared to be the norm in the UK at that time and left many people permanently fearful of oral care for the rest of their lives. Of course today, such practices would not be allowed and any dentist who used them would rightfully lose their license to practice.

Every time Pearl entered a dental office she would be triggered by the sounds, smells and past memories, making it very difficult to develop a safe relationship with dental professionals, very much like post-traumatic stress disorder. In spite of this fear, it was her hope not to lose any teeth and to stay healthy that thankfully brought her to our practice. Pearl and I built up a trusting friendship over the years and our hygiene visits together were something we looked forward to. When one colleague commented to me that it was time Pearl “got over her problem and stopped using Ativan”, I realized how important it is for hygienists and staff to develop empathy and understanding around a patient’s emotional and psychological triggers and to compassionately look for solutions.

People hear us on the level that we speak from. Everything we do is infused with the consciousness with which we do it. It is about who we are when we do it.”  – Marianne Williamson

As hygienists (and humans!) we have the opportunity to bring kindness, care, thoughtfulness, compassion, empathy and love into our daily interactions, whether at work or at home. While the focus on “production and efficiency” in today’s dental industry can sometimes undermine these moments to connect on a deeper level with our patients, we have the choice about how we want to create “heart-centered care” in order that those we serve may feel positive, understood and cared for at the end of their visit.