Pulling Yourself Up the Ladder
Dental careers take unexpected directions
Tracy Jacobs, RDH
Every dental hygienist has a unique story about her or his introduction to this field. The town where I grew up in Alabama offered nothing but dirt roads and a four-way stop, and no one ever talked about college or a career. Thus my path to dentistry had an unlikely beginning on another continent, when I accompanied my husband to Italy, where he was stationed with the Air Force. There, I started volunteering with the American Red Cross, and I was fortunate enough to work for 18 months alongside Jeffrey Staples, DDS, who would become my mentor. As his chairside assistant, I not only learned the ins and outs of dentistry, but also gained confidence as Staples encouraged me to pursue a career in dental hygiene. I had taken my first step onto the ladder—to explore my opportunities the dental world.
I kept this goal in mind even as I returned to small-town Alabama, with two children and no husband. I was able to obtain a Pell Grant to attend hygiene school at a college about an hour's drive away. I remember being so overwhelmed—particularly with classes such as Anatomy and Physiology, topics I hardly knew the meaning of—and I had to work twice as hard as others. But I graduated second in my class. Within a few years, I moved to Marietta, Georgia, with my new husband, and I was working part time as a dental hygienist.
The next important rung in my career was again unexpected. One day, I witnessed a terrible accident between a van and a motorcycle. When I stopped to help the injured motorcyclist, I felt helpless as I tried my best to remember my (largely nonexistent) CPR training. Afterwards, I decided to become a CPR instructor—not only to help people in an emergency, but also to properly train others.
Once I became a certified instructor, the American Heart Association Training Center invited me to become a faculty member. I trained others to be instructors and created my own CPR company, which is expanding nationwide. Our goal is to provide basic CPR training to dental offices, as well as individualized training to meet the specific needs of respective practices. We ensure that team members understand their role in an emergency situation, and then we run a simulation in the office. We also ensure that each dental office we work with has the most up-to-date equipment.
Around the same time that I became a CPR Instructor, a local oral surgeon invited me to join a study club that he hosted, a group of about 30-35. In the early days, these study clubs were some of the most enjoyable educational experiences of my professional life. When the oral surgeon announced that he no longer had time to organize the study club and would, therefore, be disbanding it, I couldn't let the momentum we'd built go to waste, so I volunteered to form a new group. Over the years, the study club grew, until I was renting hotel ballrooms to accommodate our swelling attendance.
For the next rung up, I started three area study club chapters, which grew to such a degree that I decided to go national. However, the model that had worked so well in Georgia did not find the same success in other major markets. Renting spaces, providing food, and booking speakers proved to be an expensive endeavor. So I decided to livestream my events instead and patch the other groups in live. This concept worked quite well, using a livestreaming company to handle the technical aspects of the task, but it was very expensive. I had to continue brainstorming ways to make this dream financially viable.
Career ladders can appear unsteady sometimes. In the fall of 2019, I tried an experiment for an event in Chicago: I made the event free to all attendees. It was a massive success with more than 400 people in attendance. This sparked a new model for what has now become Wizdom Dental Education Solutions. As a result, we saw our attendance numbers grow up to 1,500 people. But it still wasn't profitable, and with the COVID-19 pandemic slowing down the industry (and everything else), I made adjustments by livestreaming in-house, inviting sponsors, and becoming an Academy of General Dentistry PACE Provider. In addition, company sponsorships for products I feel are important and innovative are another opportunity to become more involved in dental education and the future of dental treatment.
As I look into the future, I am certain there will be even more ways to keep climbing that ladder—wherever it takes me. Success isn't a place in which you will someday find yourself. It's a constant climbing. It is improvising and working with what you have to build something a little better. And the most important lesson I can pass along is: if I can do it, there are young people in small towns—with little or no support—who can do it too.