Kristy Weatherholtz was at a crossroads in her life four years ago. Having worked in automotive sales-related jobs for several years, she was looking for direction in her career and wondering which path to take.
That's when her mother-in-law offered some sage words of wisdom. If it was her, she would go to school and do something in the dental field. Suddenly, the thought of becoming a dental hygienist sounded very attractive.
"I thought, that's something I could do. It's not life-threatening and somebody's not going to die," said Weatherholtz, laughing. "That's how it started off."
Just looking at the cold, hard numbers, the Phenix City native's professional move was a sound one. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that dental hygienists are in heavy demand.
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As of 2010, there were nearly 182,000 Americans employed in that field, which typically requires a two-year associate's degree and pays a nationwide median salary of $68,250 per year or $32.81 an hour.
The kicker is the job outlook. The bureau anticipates between 2010 and 2020, that particular dental occupation will grow 38 percent, "much faster than average," with 68,500 new hygienists needed over that period.
Weatherholtz, 29, has been cleaning and polishing people's teeth for about a year at the family dental practice of Dr. William A. Ashcraft Jr. in Smiths Station, Ala., just north of Phenix City. She sat down recently to discuss her vocation, why she chose it and her interaction with patients.
Did you have a fascination with the dental field?
Not growing up. But I've never had a bad experience at the dentist office. I love to go.
Some people do fear the dentist?
They do. There's a lot of people that have that fear and it's real. A lot of people have to take medicine before they even come through the door. It's a big thing.
What's the worst thing you've had happen with an anxious patient?
Start crying. They're so scared they tense up and as soon as you try to touch anything they just start crying. It happens. A lot of people are terrified.
Why is that?
It's a psychological thing. A lot of times it happens when you're small. If you have bad experiences at the dental office when you were small, that kind of carries on through to your adulthood and everything.
Are you trained to settle people down?
Yes. They have given us little signs to look for and try to ease them. The big thing for children is to try to get them comfortable so they don't have that problem when they're older.
What's your typical day like?
On a full day, I will see eight people -- four in the morning and four in the afternoon in a six-hour span.
What about the nitty-gritty of your work?
You're scaling off the tartar, the calculus is what they call it. Basically, you're checking the patient's history to be sure they're not taking medications that will interfere with anything. And to be sure they didn't have any knee replacement or hip replacement, because nine times out of 10 you need an antibiotic before your appointment. You then go inside and look through the mouth and take X-rays if need be. And just kind of get in there and scale and clean and polish.
What's the worst you've seen from a patient?
The hardest patients for me is those that have real high sensitivity because you can't really get in there with the water and the air and probing around and everything. Stain is the hardest thing for me to try to get off. People that smoke cigarettes and dip (tobacco and snuff), they tend to have a lot of stains, even coffee drinkers. It just depends on how long it's been sitting there and how porous your teeth are. It will get into those pores and you won't be able to get it out. But a lot of times we can get the majority of it off.
Where do you see yourself in five or 10 years, perhaps becoming a dentist?
No. I would not want to be a dentist. That's just a little bit too much responsibility. I'm happy where I'm at as a hygienist. I love it. It's a dream job to me. And everyone that I talk to who are hygienists, they love their job, they love what they're doing.
Looking back now, when I was going to get my teeth cleaned, I remember how nice everyone was in the office, especially the hygienist. She was so sweet and was telling me about her kids and this and that. It was kind of like getting your hair cut and talking to your barber or beautician. You just kind of have a connection with them. That's the best part of my job, the patients.
So it's the people connection that truly attracts you to this profession?
It is for me. I like to see the patients come in. I had one patient that I can think of in particular who cried after I cleaned her teeth, just because it had been so long she had never had any kind of dental work done. She came in and her teeth were just stained and looked real bad. I think it took me almost two hours to clean them, and she was really excited about it. At that point, of course, she had a big treatment plan to do. But that was the starting point -- to get her in here, clean them up and see what we need to do. So she did finally come back and it was just amazing the transformation that happens.
A lot of people, their self-esteem is impacted by their teeth. A lot of people kind of hide their teeth and may not smile as much. But if you've got a bright smile, it's a big deal for a lot of people.
So the biggest mistake people make is putting off dental care and cleanings?
Right. A lot of times they think if they don't have dental insurance they can't get dental care. Certainly, if you need a root canal and a crown and things like that, it can get costly. But as far as prevention goes, if you can get cleanings twice a year versus letting your teeth rot out and then having to get them all pulled and get partials, it's really, really inexpensive if you can just prevent it.