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Dental Assistant

The Real Poop

You just can't stop dreaming about teeth. Every night, you encounter a cacophony of choppers, all clicking and clacking like a chorus of caffeine-swilling skeletons. White teeth, yellow teeth, brown teeth, green teeth—they just keep coming at you in your sleep. The truth is, as a dental assistant, some of your patients actually have multicolored teeth—often because they have somewhat questionable health habits.

Or maybe you have a tooth fetish. You get an unnatural satisfaction from interacting with patients' pearly whites and gold-plated molars. However, the brown teeth are kind of a turnoff—probably the result of too much caffeine or nicotine.

What does a dental assistant do with all these teeth? If you work for your average neighborhood dentist, you'll prep for appointments and perform hands-on patient care. You'll keep the dental instruments disinfected and sterilized, which guards against the transmission of cooties (unscientific term) from one patient to another. When a patient arrives for his appointment, you drag (err...escort) him to his treatment room. You engage in pleasant small talk (a.k.a. distract the patient) while you assemble the dentist's instruments and materials. If you've done your job well, you won't have to leave a suction hose in the patient's mouth while you run to the supply closet for something you forgot.

While the dentist tortures/treats the patient, you anticipate the dentist's needs and have those materials and tools handy. Sometimes the patient’s moanings will give you a clue. Afterward, you'll often instruct the patient about the artistry of good oral hygiene (translated: smoking? Like really?). You might also pass on specific post-treatment instructions (don’t stick things in there and don’t lick anything unsterile with that for at least a week). Finally, you get to clean up the mess and prepare for the next patient—all while you're trying not to retch.

In some dental practices, you might mix materials the dentist needs for tooth and/or mouth impressions. Don't even think about substituting Bondo for the impression mixture. You might apply a cavity-preventive substance to another patient's teeth; or coat his gums with a topical anesthetic so he can brush his teeth without jumping onto the ceiling. You might even get to remove sutures, a task that might be a no-brainer if you're a whiz at needlework or sewing projects. With special training, you might take and process dental x-rays or perform some restorative dentistry work. (It's a few more bucks an hour if you learn this valuable skill.) Of course, you only get to do these higher-level tasks if your state's dental board authorizes you to perform them.

However, maybe you don't perform dental treatment work at all. Instead, you hibernate in the practice's dental lab, which is actually a plum assignment if you don't really like dealing with patients. In the lab, you get to create temporary crowns from patients' tooth and gum impressions. You might also make tooth and/or mouth casts. If you've always been fascinated by green slime, you'll love scraping the crud off removable dental hardware so the dentist can pop it back into the patient's mouth.

So much easier than working on it while in someone's face.

Now perhaps you're wondering if dental assistants and dental hygienists are pretty much interchangeable. Au contraire: They're actually two different animals. Dental assistants help the dentist perform patient diagnosis and treatment work; dental hygienists get down and dirty with tooth and gum maintenance. To put it more simply, dental hygienists are those (sometimes) overzealous flossing and brushing fanatics who commandeer your mouth during your cleaning appointments. How could you forget that chocolate, mint or orange crush toothpaste the hygienist squirts onto that whirring little brush? How about those little goodie bags filled with dental floss and a toothbrush? Nice thought, but the bag would have much more impact if it was filled with your favorite candy.

Finally, your dental assisting career might involve interactions with the dreaded paperwork—better known as treatment records, bills and payments. Note that bills don't always result in timely payments, which means you might have to make those uncomfortable "Where is your payment?" phone calls. Larger practices might employ a receptionist and/or records specialist to do this dirty work; however, you might have to do it yourself in a smaller dental office.

Now let's dig into the inner workings of these dental offices. You'll find that over 90 percent of dental assistants work in private practice dental offices; a small number of assistants work in local, state, or federal government settings. You might even find yourself performing dental assistant work in a physician's office. You're part of the practice's/department's payroll just like any other employee. Although many dental assistants work full-time at their primary employers, many others pull part-time shifts or split their hours among multiple practices.

Okay, you've gotten a good look at a dental assistant's wide assortment of job duties. Maybe you're intrigued by the opportunity to help a child develop good dental hygiene habits. Perhaps you think it would be cool to help an older patient eat normally again—all because you helped the dentist fix the patient's painful broken tooth. You have to admit: you'd never be bored. And then there's the added perk of being able to hop between practices and earn some extra cash.

However, along with the upsides, you will find a few downsides. Yes, you will encounter some truly awful sets of teeth—or in some cases, a mouth almost completely devoid of any teeth at all. You will be subjected to nervous, irritable, thrashing patients who might even try to bite you (and we're not talking love nips here). And there's a good chance you won't make your evening exercise class or child's t-ball game—all because of that emergency patient who walked through the door 10 minutes before the office wrapped up for the day.

How might these downsides affect you? Maybe they roll right off your back like a car windshield sprayed with Rain-X. You smile in silent amusement as patients rant and rave, as children writhe and squirm, and as the dentist frets as he falls further behind schedule. You actually take a peculiar delight in keeping the supply room well stocked and labeled, and you enjoy keeping the dentist organized and on track for each appointment. Your attention to detail will serve you extremely well in a dental assistant career. You might also find those skills helpful in a nursing or veterinary technician position. If you're not sure you can handle all that blood and gore, consider executive assistant or office manager roles.

Now we have to ask an obvious question: If dental work's intricacies truly intrigue you, why would you settle for a dental assistant career? If you've been fascinated by teeth since you started growing your own, and white coats attract rather than frighten you, why wouldn't you make the investment to become a full-fledged dentist? Is it the long years of study and the large cash outlay that intimidate you? Or would you feel more comfortable in a supporting role, rather than functioning as the professional who directs the entire production? Would you rather earn your paycheck and go home each day with no responsibilities, or would you enjoy the challenges of managing your own dental practice? Decisions, decisions—and you probably shouldn't decide this one with a flip of your lucky coin. While you consider your options, the clattering teeth await.