In seven years as a Registered Dental Hygienist, Laura Schmitz Cook has already seen a lot of change -- for example, she said, "Fluoride varnish has progressed. It was yellowish, now it's clear. You can give it to young kids without fear. It's a great treatment for kids with high decay risk."
Digital X-rays are easier to manipulate than film, providing better information about what's going on, and because they're instantly viewable, "they're a great educational tool."
Of course, some things haven't changed; Schmitz Cook spends most of her time cleaning teeth. "I take pride in being very gentle, but when people tell me they don't like the dentist, I say, 'I don't take it personally.' I understand the anxiety about going to the dentist."
Through her first year in college, Schmitz Cook was torn between being a teacher and being a hygienist. After spending 20 hours shadowing a hygienist, the decision was easy. "I could see myself doing this," she said. In addition to graduating with a four-year degree from an accredited program, Schmitz Cook had to take clinical and written board examinations.
Schmitz Cook moved to Minnesota as soon as she graduated from the University of South Dakota and "found a job right away through networking," although she senses that jobs are tighter in the current economy. To be registered in Minnesota, she had to pass a state test on relevant laws and the code of ethics. She also earns 25 continuing education credits every two years to maintain her certification.
Many of the continuing education credits come through the Minnesota Dental Hygiene Association (MNDHA), where Schmitz Cook is an active volunteer. For the past two years, she has organized the Twin Cities Oral Cancer Walk, sponsored by MNDHA and the Minnesota Dental Assistants' Association. The walk/fun run raises money for the Oral Cancer Foundation and raises awareness of the disease. The first year, nearly 200 people participated , raising $13,000 and providing free oral cancer screenings to anyone who attended the event.
Schmitz Cook hopes that even more people will participate in this year's event, which will be held on Saturday, Oct. 27 at Lake Nokomis. On-site registration begins at 8 a.m. Free oral cancer screenings will be provided between 8 and 9 a.m., and the walk/fun run around the lake begins at 9:30. To register or donate, go to oralcancerfoundation.org or email Schmitz Cook at TCoralcancerwalk.@gmail.com.
What do you like best about your job?
I see the before and after. Good dental care is not just the health of the mouth -- it's the rest of the body, too.
What's the hardest part of the job?
It's wearing for the body. I work a four-day week, which is not uncommon. A typical work week is 36-38 hours. You have to be careful how you're sitting, that you're not twisting your neck, that you're holding your arms properly. I've started using loupes [magnifying lenses] because they enable me to sit up straighter. I tell kids that they're my microscopes so I can find the sugar bugs.
What should people know about oral cancer?
The human papilloma virus (HPV) now causes more oral cancer than tobacco or alcohol. Younger people can be affected. The earlier oral cancers are found, the more effectively they can be treated. Everyone should come to the Twin Cities Oral Cancer Walk and get a free screening.