A Passing of Sorts

Most of you know that I closed out my final career as a surgical dental assistant. If you’ve been around here for some time you might also remember that I’ve also worked with pregnant couples as a doula and educator. I always wanted to be a nurse, then a midwife, but dentistry was quicker, cheaper and more attainable way back in 1978 so that’s the route I took.

I found that I really liked it and was quite good at my job. My rather overt need to be organized was a big plus when it came to working in a structured and procedural oriented occupation. I also really enjoyed educating patients and helping them to have positive, healthy and often extremely life-changing moments and outcomes.

One of the perks of my educational program way back then was that students were almost always guaranteed to be placed in a dental office after graduation. Often we received internships prior to graduation and then simply stayed on as a new assistant in that office. I had one of those internships, but the dentist and office staff, as well as their overall philosophy, just didn’t fit with my personality. I was terrified the day I had to sit down with the dentist and tell him thanks, but no thanks. I did it though because I knew that I would never fit in that office, and I wanted the advantage of my schools support to find a position rather than trying to go at it on my own.

After my decision to forego the elite pediatric dental office I ended up just staying in our schools clinic, finishing out my last few months there, working with the local dentists who volunteered their time to come in, teach us what they needed in a chairside assistant, and provide low-cost care to the community.

Just prior to graduation I was sent out for an interview at a brand new office just minutes from my home. I was totally enthused because I would be the only back office staff person. The office was that new. Plus he was offering an amazing $12.00 per hour, along with incentive bonuses as we grew the practice. I couldn’t believe that I was getting my very own office, so to speak, right out of school, plus a big enough paycheck that I could live on my own. Remember this was early 1980 after all.  

Here’s my graduating class. I’m way over to the right in the end chair.


I worked in that office for 6 years until I was politely asked to leave because I “seemed not to be as focused on my job anymore” which really translated into ‘you’re pregnant now  and I’m not a man who finds pregnant woman acceptable (he used to make really sexist comments about his pregnant wife who was just a few months farther along than me) and so I’m giving you this opportunity to leave.’

He really was an ass, and always had been, but paid well at the time plus let me do what I wanted to set up and run the back office along with performing lots of individual procedures so I chose to overlook his attitudes. I look back and admit that wasn’t how I would choose to situate myself now. In reality, that abrupt end turned out fine, as I had not planned to return there after giving birth anyway.

I went on to be a mom, and an educator, and a doula, and then back to dental assisting in a general dental practice …for another sexist ass, prior to finishing my career in oral surgery. I suppose pondering this trend to associate myself with men who clearly lack any cohesive bond with feminism, as well as my own moral compass and ethics in working for them, needs to be fodder for another blog post.

So, why this clearly endearing walk down memory lane you might ask.

That first office, MY first office, is no longer standing. It has been situated on a very busy corner along a major highway for almost 37 years. I passed it often. The same dentist, my first employer, has been in that location the entire time. We had an insurance office on one side and a deli on the other. The deli owner was also an overt sexist. The insurance owner followed LDS beliefs, but I can’t speak to his views on woman. There have been many changes in the businesses alongside over the years, but the one constant was my dental office.

About 2 weeks ago, as I drove by to go to the bank I noticed a chain-link fence surrounding the property. About 1 week ago, I drove by again on my way down the highway and realized that the building had been razed. Huge pieces of equipment were positioned to pull out crushed concrete and metal and load it into waiting trucks. The only thing left today when I drove by was the original concrete slab and a few small piles of rubble. Now only a concrete footprint delineates the place that I began my career. I had to stop for the traffic light, and as I looked over toward the almost empty lot I noticed a few pipes remaining. They were the lines that had fed nitrous oxide and oxygen from our outside tanks under the concrete slab and into our building.

Other memories rushed in as I remembered having to unlock the outside tank storage area every morning and turn on those tanks, then do the reverse at the end of each day.

Some things that stand out include:

The very frightening and totally unacceptable fact that we never wore masks or PPE of any kind, and only used surgical gloves if we were extracting a tooth. Common practice in 1980. Yuck, gross, alarming, and why/how I’m still alive after all that exposure is amazing.

Polyester uniforms and white nurse shoes. As you can note by my grad picture, we were required to wear all white during school, even white nurse socks. The first thing I did when I got my first job was to go out and buy a colored, print top and toss the white stockings. No breathable scrubs back then…no way…only thick polyester. I chose the brightest top I could find. It was orange. I have never worn orange since.

Along the lines of that personal hygiene/safety issue, we cleaned some instruments with alcohol only. No, I wasn’t trying – or being directed – to cut corners or be cheap. It was what we did back then with a few select groups of instruments. It was standard practice in dentistry. It was gross. It was awful. It does not happen now so please continue to go to your dentist.

Unknown, but likely high amounts of scatter radiation from our panoramic dental x-ray machine. Now days those types of x-rays are either digital, or must be in a position in the office where operators and other staff/patients are shielded. Ours sat out in the open about 4 feet from the reception desk and the receptionist herself.

Mercury. Perhaps sharing too much about this topic will push you beyond your limits when it comes to learning what happened in dental offices just a few decades ago, but I’m sharing anyway. Mercury was mixed with a metal alloy to form amalgam, the stuff of silver fillings that so many still have in their teeth. Many offices literally had their assistants physically placing the alloy pellet and the necessary amount of mercury into a tiny capsule that was then inserted into an amalgamator which shook the contents at such a high rate that a soft, pliable substance was formed and could then be pushed into a waiting cavity prep. Even in the offices, like mine, that used pre-mixed capsules, assistants still had to load a tool with the soft amalgam. Remember, we didn’t use gloves. Let’s now consider mercury vapor…along with the repeated, even if inadvertent, contact with mercury that was inevitable with that system overall.

It is no wonder that, as I find myself getting more forgetful, and contemplating if I may be headed for dementia or even Alzheimer disease in the future, I need to reflect seriously on a more likely scenario – long term exposure to mercury and it’s effects. 

Please note – I am not saying it is imperative to rush out and get any remaining amalgam fillings removed and replaced. I will state though that if you happen to go to a dentist that still routinely uses amalgam there are better, safer alternatives. It may be time to question the continued use of this substance, for your sake and the office staff as well.

1st generation Volkswagen Scirocco’s. Anyone remember or every drive one? This was the car my dentist drove. I will always remember being crammed into the non-existent backseat on a 50 minute trip to Seattle for a dental convention.

Hormonal migraines. During the time I worked in this office I was experiencing some of the worst migraines I ever had. I would literally have to force myself to sit upright and assist with patients. The overhead fluorescent lights pierced my eyes like a knife. At lunch, when I had a headache, I would curl up in the dental chair for as long as I could until we started our afternoon. I was the only assistant. I never thought that I had the option to leave.

A patient named Mike. Horrible teeth that we fixed up nicely, along with a partial denture as he was missing many of his molars. He was incredibly nice. He rode a motorcycle. I rode with him a few times. He was also into martial arts. He recommended Tiger Balm…for various uses. Enough said.

The dentists wife. Nice enough to your face, but I always had my suspicions. She was also a dental assistant. I swear that she would come into the office after hours or on the weekend and rearrange things to suit her idea of proper dental order. I could never prove it, and the mercury hadn’t clouded my memory that soon. I knew how I left things and they were not always as I left them. As I noted earlier, she and I were both pregnant with our first child at the same time. I remember concerns in her pregnancy centered on the possibility of spina bifida. The child was fine. It shocked me though, to find out many years later that the younger brother of this child – who had attended the same high school as my son and graduated in the same class – died. I somehow stumbled upon an obituary and was truly saddened for their family.

Well, let’s call it a wrap. That’s enough reminiscing for one post, and probably more than any of you ever wanted to know about pre-stringent dental infection control standards.

There are no informative signs up, or indications of future development plans, so I have no idea what is going to go up in place of the old building, if anything. It is on a weird corner though, sort of a triangle, with the closest business being a Bucky’s Muffler Shop, or maybe it’s a Jiffy Lube. Something automotive anyway. Geez, you think I’d remember the name of a business that I drive by so often…

Anyone for a few drops of shiny mercury. It forms lovely little silver balls…






3 thoughts on “A Passing of Sorts”

  1. When I was a kid, my aunt and uncle had a kind of ‘desk toy’ type of game in their lounge which consisted of a very complicated maze in a round perspex case. The aim of the game was to get a large blob of mercury into the centre of the maze.
    That amusement saved me from hours of post dinner boredom! The mercury intrigued me. I loved the way it moved… I loved how it would split and then unite again…

    Your career sounds varied and interesting. Much like that mercury, you split into a range of ‘roles’ and now perhaps, have ‘come together’ (although you naturally wonder about the memories falling apart).


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mercury does have it’s interesting side, I give you that. Contained is definitely the best. I chose not to share the true horror stories in the post…such as chasing miniscule balls of spilled mercury around a countertop – again – unprotected.
      I have had a few careers, although all in many ways related. To be honest, even now, I still long to pursue a few of those pathways deeper, but I think there are too many roadblocks right now. My mercury has some decisions to make as it continues to roll around at will 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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