A Day’s Work: Dental hygienist

Serena Rafferty

Serena Rafferty

A lifelong Saugerties resident, Serena Rafferty works at Tischler and Patch Dental as well as Pine Street Dental.  A 1999 graduate of Saugerties High School, she attended Hudson Valley Community College, were she graduated with her associate’s degree in dental hygiene in 2003. Rafferty lives in Saugerties with her husband and three children.

How did you get started in this line of work? 

When I was a senior in high school, I worked at Polaski Dental a few hours a week after school. I helped the office staff with end of the day type of things like tidying up and setting up rooms for the next day. Dr. Polaski encouraged me to go to dental-hygiene school, but at the time I didn’t think that was for me.

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I did the culinary program through BOCES when I was in high school, and I wanted to be a pastry chief. Once I started looking at schools, I realized that pursing that line of work, going to the Culinary Institute and such, could be really expensive. So I decided to give hygiene school a shot. It was only a two-year program, it was at a local college, and it was relatively inexpensive. It turned out that I really loved it.

Is there any ongoing training that is required?

I have a license through the state and I have to take 24 continuing education credits every three years to maintain that license. I also have to be CPR certified.

What sort of person makes a good hygienist?

You have to be personable but not necessarily outgoing. You need to be friendly and willing to work with patients. Some patients are open to whatever you tell them they should do, but others are resistant for a variety of reasons. They may not want x-rays or fluoride either for financial or health reasons. So you need to be flexible. But there is a responsibility as the licensed professional to have to provide certain services. I can’t just clean your teeth because that is all you want.

What’s a common misconception about your work?

I think people assume that we just brush their teeth. It’s more than that. We diagnose periodontal disease. We look at formation of teeth, position of teeth, and gum health. There is a lot more medical background to what we do.

How are the hours? Does the job provide a good work-life balance?

For me it does provide a great balance. Because I am between two offices I only work four days a week and I have the weekends off. I have some flexibility, which is important to me now that I have children. I don’t have to take anything home with me, either. Once I leave the office, I am done for the day.

What makes for a good day?

Friendly patients always helps. It’s also good when everything is on time and we are right on schedule.

A bad day?

When a patient is very late but still needs to be seen. Then it runs into every other appointment. I also have some patients who are harder to deal with and are maybe a bit more particular about what they think is acceptable in their treatment, even though it’s not necessarily what is best. Sometimes certain personalities are just trickier to deal with.

How’s the pay?

It’s very good. It’s hourly, and some offices have a bonus system with production goals.

Some people have a fear of the dentist. What is something that you can do or some advice you have to help ease that fear?

Well, when a patient first comes in, we start of very slowly and sit down with them to assess what their goals are as a dental patient. We also work very slowly with children. We don’t bombard them with x-rays or lots of tools. It’s important to watch what words we use as well. With children, I am not going to say, ‘We need to extract your tooth.’ I am going to say, ‘We need to wiggle your baby tooth.’

It’s important to talk to the patients and help take their mind off the office and the procedures. We want our patients to know they can relax.

Do you find that most people regularly visit the dentist of is it something that fluctuates with the economy and healthcare?

It definitely can, depending on the practice. Some offices take insurance, some only take one or two insurances, so that can affect how often people visit.

Has the job changed since you’ve started?

It has changed in the way that we do a little bit more. It depends on the office, though. A newer, more progressive dentist might offer more things such as whitenings and fluorides and sealants. Some of the older dentists might have a more basic approach in what they offer, handling mostly just cleanings, fillings and x-rays.

Now it seems like we look at what the patients want as well. We offer more cosmetic procedures and corrections that weren’t always addressed. It all depends on the dentist’s approach and their generation of dentistry. I think dentistry is also becoming more preventative, too. We educate our patients on home care and correcting gingivitis and such.

Technology has changed, too. We use more lasers in dentistry. As a hygienist, I use it mostly in disinfection. The machinery and materials are evolving all the time.

What would you say to someone who is thinking about going into this field?

I love it. For myself, when I started, I thought, It’s two years of college, so if I don’t like it I haven’t invested eight years. Financially, it’s flexible. With your associate’s you are a clinical hygienist and chairside, but you can go on and get your bachelor’s degree. You could go on and work for Colgate and create toothbrushes. Or you can go into teaching.

What is one piece of advice that you wish all of your patients would take?

I think home care. We are truly telling you to do some of these things for a reason. Like flossing.

There is a reason we tell you this. I wish patients would internalize this a little. You can live without your teeth, but your quality of life without your natural, functioning teeth is not the same. So our advice about home care is important. The flossing is really simple. It’s just getting in the habit of doing it that is so tricky.

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