PITTSFIELD — Lots of young people graduate from high school with no idea of what they're going to do next. Heather Swistak knows this feeling first-hand, as she was once one of them.

That adolescent indecision is not uncommon, but unlike some who experience it, Swistak channeled her indecisiveness into action. Taking her mother's advice, she enrolled in a one-year dental program at McCann Technical School. That led her to a career as a dental hygienist, a profession that's she passionate about.

Swistak currently works for periodontist Erich Schmidt's practice in Pittsfield — a dental professional that works on the mouth's gum and bones and often provides surgical procedures. We talked with the Cheshire resident recently about being a dental hygienist, and why she likes it so much.   

Q: Why did you want to be a dental hygienist?

A: I think I kind of just stumbled upon it. When I got out of high school, I didn't really know what to do and my mom told me you're not sitting around doing nothing. So we started looking into McCann because it was a one year program. She said to me, "Why don't you go into the medical field? If you want a family you'll always have a job there because a lot's done with medical." I had a lot done with braces and stuff growing up so I said I'll try the dental field. I started off in September 2000 at McCann as a dental assistant, and I fell in love with it. By December, I knew I wanted to be a dental hygienist. I wanted to continue my education (Swistak went on to receive an associates degree in applied science/dental hygiene from Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, N.Y., and also holds a degree in anesthesiology from Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester). I found my passion.

Q: What did you fall in love with?

A: The patients; to see them go from unhealthy to being healthy. 

Q: Why is that so rewarding?

A: It's rewarding to see people come in who haven't been to the dentist in 30 years and you have to treat them and make their gums healthy so they can have other work done. To see that you made them healthy ... it's such a change in their life. Some people are grateful, some people don't care, and some will praise you for the rest of your life. And they become like family. You see them more than when they go to their regular dentist, too. I've been treating some of my patients for 20 years now, and I look forward to seeing them. 

I've worked for general (dentistry), but I prefer perio (periodontology). It's more interesting. You never know what you're going to see in the office.

Q: What do you see in periodontal work?

A: With your general dentist, you're going to see basically just fillings, crowns, bridges, maybe a root canal here and there. [In periodontology] we're doing surgery, we're doing extractions, we're putting teeth back in people's heads by implant or gum grafting. It's a little bit more involved. 

Q: How has the work changed since you started? 

A: I went from learning how to dip (x-ray) film in fixer and developer and water and letting them air dry for 45 minutes, to digital and having an x-ray in front of you in 30 seconds. I remember when we had hand serving instruments. Now we have ultrasonic cleaners. Times have changed. We used to have paper charts. Now we have computers, which I like a lot better.

Back in the day we used to use hand scales (instruments). Now we have ultrasonic scalers. It's like a magnetic field that uses pressurized water and the vibration removes the tarter off the teeth so your hands aren't as fatigued.

Q: What is a dental hygienist's role in maintaining a patient's teeth?

A: Education. A lot of people don't know how to floss. A lot of people don't know how to brush, the technique. Holding the brush a certain way, or scrubbing too hard. Or even educating them on how to use an electronic toothbrush. They were just starting to come out when I got out of college.

Q: What exactly do you do when you clean teeth?

A: What I'm doing is basically is removing tarter deposits, which is biofilm, which is part of your plaque, and over time, if you don't brush or floss or don't go to regular cleanings, that plaque becomes a hard deposit that adheres itself to the tooth. So what I do is go in and scale that calculus off the tooth because it's very rough. When a tooth lays up against that calculus it gets inflamed and unhealthy, so I go in and rub that off so the tissue can lay up against a nice smooth root and be healthy again. I check for cavities, too.

Q: How do you learn the technique?

A: Where I went, I think it was second semester freshman year, we worked on each other. In the last year we started to see easy cases. We worked on dentaforms, which are like a fake mouth. They were just like a mouth with a bar and you put it on a chair like it was a patient, and they had rubber cheeks. They slowly introduce you to the mouth.

It's technique that they teach you and a lot of people can't pick it up. It's a rigorous course, that's for sure. Lots of tears are shed in high school and college. It's not something that you can just walk off the street and learn. You have to learn how to hold an instrument and how to adapt it because there's a blade on the instrument and they're sharp. You could really lacerate some tissue or cut somebody horribly.

Q: How long does it take to really get the method down pat?

A: I'm still learning it. Every mouth is different so you kind of use what you've learned and how to adapt the instruments.

I like cleaning teeth. It's just amazing how one person can build a ton of calculus in three months and the next person doesn't. It's amazing to me what the human body can and can't do.

Q: What's the most unusual case you've  ever seen?

A: It was probably when I first got out of hygiene school. I had a husband and wife who had moved to the states from Africa. They were probably 48 and 49. They had never been to the dentist in their life. They had anything and everything wrong with them. You didn't know where to start first. 

Q: Why is it so hard to remove plaque from teeth? 

A: It's just tenacious. It's like somebody super gluing rocks to your teeth or barnacles on a boat.

Q: Based on your experience, why do you think some people dread going to the dentist?

A: A lot of it is the baby-boomer age because back in the day they used Novocain. The onset was about 10 or 15 minutes and you had a 10 minute gap to work in. So it didn't last that along. A lot of people weren't getting numb. I heard a lot of dentists smoked or drank. The chairs used foot pedals. It was just scary.

It's not like that anymore. We have general anesthesia that actually works in two or three minutes and it lasts for two or three hours. People are compassionate, more caring, more educated. Phobias now? I don't really see a lot. 

Q: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to be a dental hygienist?

A: I think it's a great profession. There's great flexibility with hours and days. You're in the medical field so you're always going to have work. And it's rewarding, at least I think it is.

Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6224.

Business writer

Tony Dobrowolski's main focus is on business reporting. He came to The Eagle in 1992 after previously working for newspapers in Connecticut and Montreal. He can be reached at tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6224.