Dental hygiene students play the waiting game

By Elayne Crecelius

We were all there. Lying on our backs. Some were lucky enough to get sweet sunglasses to lessen the harsh light above their head. Drills whizzing in the background send dental horrors running through the head of anyone within earshot of them. Before we were able to get up and bolt out of the office, someone would walk in, clip what looked and felt like a paper towel around our necks, smile, and say “open wide.”

I have never liked the dentist.  I distinctly remember my first visit to a dentist office and how quickly I decided it wasn’t for me.  Don’t get me wrong, gross mouths and teeth disgust me but that is about where my caring of the dental hygiene process ends.  However, as we can all tell when we visit the dentist offices there are some people who want to make a living out of scrubbing plaque (which I like to more scientifically refer to as gunk) off of teeth in other people's mouths.

Dental hygiene programs are effective once in, but tend to have grueling wait times in order to enter the course.  Lake Superior College (LSC) is a prime example of such a program.  Once in the program, students are able to practice everyday charting and cleaning techniques that will be pertinent when they get into the professional field.  However, in order to get into this program, multiple prerequisite classes must be taken and then the students wait --and wait, and wait, and wait-- until they are accepted into the dental hygiene program. This wait takes a minimum of two years.

While dental hygiene tends to pay higher than most of the careers I will ever be offered with my communication major, I don’t think I could be convinced to stay in school, or put my schooling on hold in order to simply wait and hope to get on a list that basically says, “You may come in now.” Again, though, it must be something appealing otherwise we would all be walking around with corn-colored teeth, or worse, no teeth at all.

I wanted to learn more about "the list."  It sounded so intense and exclusive.  I wanted to know where it was in the dental hygiene program and who was in charge of it.  Why is it two years of waiting; why not more, or less?  I would think students would prefer a shorter wait.  What I found was that, yes I was right.  Students do want a shorter wait time.  But the reasons for the list’s functioning are based on more — oh so much more — than simply wait time.

Walking into the dental hygiene school I try to mentally prepare myself for what I think will be waiting for me.  I already know there will be a girl in a bright pink jacket waiting for me.  I called ahead to be sure she knew what I was wearing, and vice versa.

Bethany Bergstad is a first-year student in the dental hygiene program at LSC.  She smiles as I walk in and after doing the introductions she takes me into the clinic at school.  The clinic is located in the E Building on the campus.  It is made up of a waiting room, offices, classrooms, and of course, the clinic where the program is held.  Right now there are students as well as supervisors milling around what I can see inside the clinic.  A receptionist waits at the desk and glances over at us.

A tour of the building takes me to a classroom where Bergstad sits down at her seat. She opens a drawer and pulls out a metal jaw.

“We have assigned seats and we are in here all day.  Oh the teachers rotate and change, but we stay in here,” Bergastad says.

The jaw she is showing me is what the students use in order to practice their filling and figure out what tooth goes where.  The typodont (metal mouth) is what the students use to begin their training on.   There is a mannequin head that the mouth can be attached to and put lips on it.

“Makes it more realistic as to what a person would be like,” Bergstad says.

The words she uses to describe the different parts of the mouth don’t sound like words.  I try multiple times to say them out loud and in my head.  No success.  But classrooms and typdonts are not what I am after.  We head into the clinic now, the belly of the beast.  I am in awe as we enter the clinic.  The people milling about that I had seen earlier are a mixture of supervisors, students, and local dentists who have come in to donate their time to training the students.

“Six weeks ago we were working on each other in the classroom,” Bergstad says.  She is nervous because in a few weeks they will return to the classroom to learn a new aspect of dentistry: Novocain.

I see the locker room and the area they are learning to make molds in.  Some of the students have patients in their chairs and are working on different parts of their mouth.  Each patient that is worked on has paperwork and not just the simple here-is-how-your-teeth-are paperwork.  Every patient must be documented through at least 12 different forms.  Each side of ever paper must be filled out.

“The whole process takes about four hours,” Bergstad says.

Think about being in a dentist's chair for four hours.  Usually people freak out when it’s longer than 45 minutes, but four hours? And not only that, the person that is inside your mouth for the majority of this time is more than likely a friend or relative that is learning the trade.  Four hours?

“First years bring in their own subjects and work on them,” Brittany says.  She says second-year students work on strangers when doing their cleanings.  I think about my roommate and who she will be bringing in to do work on.  I already know one will be me.  Wonderful.

We stop and talk to two of the students. Sara Ringold is a second year in the program.  Next year she will potentially be working full time in a real life dental office.  When asked about her experience getting put on and getting off the list to get into the program she looks to the ground, then over at her friend and gives a sarcastic laugh. I get the short and sweet version.

“Let me just say I was on the list for three years.  Once you’re in though, it’s a lot of work and takes a lot of dedication; but it’s fun.”

Eureka.  I have found another girl who had a difficult time getting in the program.  Bergstad tells me she too had been on the list for two years before being accepted.  The list grows even more ominous to me as I hear about their waiting times.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Kathy Leonard, director of the dental hygiene program at LSC, opens the door to her office.  Her office is left and down the hall from the classroom Bethany Bergstad had talked to me in.

“I forgot I had clinics all day so I literally have about five minutes,” Leonard says.  She is finishing her now-rushed lunch.  Her office is a lot smaller than I would have imagined the director having.

“We are one of the few programs (dental) without a competitive admissions process,” Leonard says.  By this, Leonard explains, she means that students are not admitted into the dental hygiene program based on their GPA.  Leonard says that one can’t prove an "A" student is a better dental hygienist than someone with a lower GPA.

“All students that complete the pre-reqs are required to have a cumulative GPA of 2.6.  That is higher than what it was previously at.  It used to be 2.0, then we moved it to 2.2, then moved it to where it is now at 2.6.,” Leonard says.

Leonard says that most of the students going into the dental hygienist field are doing it because it is something they have wanted to do for a long time.  Leonard explains that one of the requirements for the program is 20 hours shadowing in a dentist office of their choice.  She says since implementing this into the program, the number of people dropping out or transferring to another program has decreased.

“People need to know what they’re going into; since this requirement was put into the program we haven’t lost one,” Leonard says.

Leonard explains that while she is the director of the program, she does not have access to the actual list of who is waiting to get into the program.  Darn it.  However, the meeting with her has brought up new questions for the person that does have the list.  The ever ambiguous list still awaits.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I wanted one more student on, or who had been on, the list.  I walked into Caribou Coffee and did the awkward look around.  Kelsey Janz graciously waved and we chatted about her experience with the LSC dental list.

“My advisor told me that I am not in the 2010 class, and it was too early to know for the 2011 class,” Janz says.

Janz says her ultimate goal is to be a dentist.  However, while the waiting list for dental hygiene is two years, dental school can be closer to three years.   Janz says she figures she would do the pre-reqs for dental hygiene and get on that waitlist.  While on that waitlist, she wants to finish her B.A. for dental school and then get on dental school wait list.  Hopefully, Janz says, by that time she will be accepted into the dental hygiene program.

“I’m kinda going one step at a time,” Janz says. “I didn’t want to go to school that long (dental), so if I don’t get into it, I will always have dental hygiene.”

Janz also thinks that having a dental hygiene background would make dental school just that much easier.  After mentally recovering from what I feel is a better planned out future than mine ever will be, I ask Janz what she thinks about the list as a whole and frustrations she might have had with it.

Janz says there are many corrections that could be made to the “stupid” list.  She says, and I agree, there is a high demand for students that want to be in this field.  Most instructors and more people accepted into the program would make more sense.  As we continue to talk, the issue of a GPA-based list comes up.

“Maybe a GPA (based) list would be better.  Students who work harder could get in.  But, I know, things happen and a person's GPA could go down.  I don’t know.  It might be more beneficial,” Janz says.

“It’s kind of discouraging.  Like always saying, maybe get ‘this’ done; like to finally get a degree” Janz says.

Finally.  I had gotten an appointment with the list holder.  Even the title sounded cool.  In charge of this list of people trying to get into a single program at a school; it seemed very intense.

I sat in the waiting area of the main building on LSC campus.  I kept imagining how I was going to handle the number of people waiting to get into the program.  It must be enormous.  I had talked to people that had had so many problems getting into the program; it must be as long the north shore.

“Elayne?”  Melissa Leno says as she looks around the room.  The director of admissions is nothing like I pictured her.  She looks fairly young, almost my age.  Ok, maybe not my age but definitely much younger than I expected.

We walk back to her office and begin the small talk: previewing what we will be talking about and her reminding me that some information I won’t be able to have access to.  She puts a protective screen on her computer so I am unable to see what is on the screen.

“Let me give you a couple different numbers; so there are two lists,” Leno says as she searches the files in her computer.

Two lists. Even more students waiting for years.  Perfect.

“Let’s just start with the list of people specifically waiting to get into the program,” I say.  Pen and paper ready to write down the ridiculous number she will tell me.

“Of course, just wait a moment.  Alright here it is.  Right now there are about,”

Wait.  Wait.  Wait.

“Sixty students ready to get in.  And by that I mean they are on the ready list,” Leno says.

That can’t be right.  Sixty students?  With a two year wait, and only twenty students accepted each time around there had to be more.

“I’m sorry,” I start “Did you say sixty?”

“Yes.  Sixty.  Now on the other list, the one that tracks those who are looking to get in there are about 340 people being tracked,” Leno says.

That sounded more like a number I wanted to hear, but it was with the wrong list.  I didn’t understand if there were so few students actually waiting to get accepted, why was the wait so long?  Leno noticed my confusion and frustration.

“Many go at their own pace through this program,” Leno says.  She explains that once a year they take 20 students into the dental hygiene program. They send out letters to those that are on the ready list and wait for them to do one of three things.  They can accept the letter and be in the program.  They can reject the letter completely and be out of the program.  Finally, they can defer the letter for a year.  Leno says that this year there weren’t many students who did either of the last two.

“In this economy when something opens up you grab it,” Leno says.  She also says that some of the students on the list got into other health programs before a spot in the dental program opened up.

I ask Leno if she thinks this strategy of the list is fair for the students who are one of the 60 on the wait list.

“The way we do it is fairest for everyone,” Leno says.  The GPA list idea from Janz is revisited. “Someone with a good GPA may not be the greatest.  Lots of things go into it other than just grades.  You also have to have good bedside manner and whatnot.”

It’s starting to make sense to me, the whole list idea.  While it’s not what I thought it would be by a longshot, the way it operates begins to make sense.  I understand where the students could be frustrated waiting for years to get into a program and basically be on hold until then.  But this doesn’t have to be the case.

The LSC dental hygiene program was originally stationed at UMD, but was transferred when UMD went to a four year school.  The two-year program didn’t fit.  Since then, UMD and LSC have created a smooth running program that allows students to use credits between the colleges to obtain a community health education degree while they are on the list.  Their life doesn’t have to be on hold.

Also, the option to accept more people in the program is completely out.  The facility is made for 20 students, and if LSC floods the market they can’t successfully say their students will be placed in a job out of their program.

I leave the admissions office with a clearer understanding of why the program is the way it is.  It makes sense.  I might have built the list up in my head and made it bigger than what it is, but I still wouldn’t want to be on a list like that.  Then again, I wouldn’t want to stick my hand in someone’s mouth either.

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