You never forget your first patient. Crystal Lisby knows she won't.
The dental hygienist in training was nervous the first time she cleaned someone's teeth, even though the patient was her mother. That's because her mom is a dental hygienist, too.
"It got easier from there," said Lisby, 20, an Edison College student. "The first time you remove a piece of (tartar), it's a huge moment."
Heather Barroso, also a dental hygiene student at Edison, agreed. After she graduates in May, convincing patients that flossing their teeth is the best way to stay out of the dentist's chair will be Barroso's full-time job.
"I think most people don't understand how important flossing is. It seems so basic, but it's so important," said Barroso, 34.
In the meantime, she gets lots of practice in persuasion. She could even practice on you.
Edison College's campus in south Fort Myers is equipped with an operating Dental Hygiene Clinic. The office gives students in the college's dental program the real-life experience they need, and offers affordable access to dental care for residents.
Dental hygiene and dental assisting students work regular hours in the clinic, which offers appointments to anyone. The clinic has a roster of more than 4,000 patients. There, students in the dental hygiene and dental assisting programs at Edison College clean, X-ray and examine the pearly whites of Southwest Florida residents under the supervision of a full-time dentist. It's free for children and $15 for adults starting April 1.
With nearly $1 million in equipment that includes digital X-rays, the 16-room clinic is far larger than most dental practices. And even if the trainees aren't speedy, they are meticulous. The students, some of whom apply more than once to the selective program, are graded on each patient.
Jim and Angie Jones are repeat customers for just that reason, they said.
"It's more thorough than you would get in a dentist's office," said Angie Jones, 72.
Still, for many, even hearing the whir and whine of tools at a dentist's office can cause anxiety. Students work to dispel those emotions.
"We get a lot of white coat syndrome," said student Sherry Ward, 38. "You just calm them down. You have to make them comfortable, even if it takes a few minutes. Especially a small child."
Often, adults' apprehension stems from bad experiences as children, Barroso said.
But Spencer Hobby, 11, has never known that fear.
For him, the worst part of going to the dentist is "the taste of it."
His mother, Lynne Hobby, said she and her two sons will keep returning to Edison for cleanings.
"I'm a scrub (technician) by trade, so I know you can't learn unless you do it," she said. "Dental insurance is so expensive. By the time you get the whole family coverage, you might as well save your pennies. Thank goodness for this place."
Both dental assisting and dental hygiene students train the clinic. Dental assistants work closely with dentists on exams and procedures, and do X-rays, as many as 18 shots for a full mouth. They also do scheduling and desk work. They must go through a 10-month program either at a school like Edison or do on-the-job training.
Want a free dental cleaning and exam? The Edison College Dental Hygiene Clinic is in the Kenneth P. Walker Health Sciences Hall. For an appointment, call 985-8334.
Dental hygienists are more independent and may work in more than one clinic. They perform the cleanings that — if you brush and floss — may be all you need. Hygienists must have two years of schooling, plus pass a national test and a rigorous state licensing exam, where they must do a cleaning in front of judges.
The training pays off.
In the Naples-Fort Myers area, the median annual salary for dental assistants is around $32,000. For dental hygienists, the median salary can be $45,000 to $65,000, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Dental assistants are in high demand in Southwest Florida, said Karen Molumby, the clinic's director.
The job is fun, said Reema Banjara, 24, who is in training to become a dental assistant, because it's a way to meet people and learn a wide variety of tasks, from taking X-rays to helping with procedures.
"Every day is a new day, and you never know what's going to happen," she said.