Dental Hygienist Enjoys Challenging, Rewarding Role
By Catherine Duncan
After earning a Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice from The University of Texas at San Antonio, Karla Roush worked in the criminal justice world until she decided to stay at home with her children.
When she wanted to restart her career, Roush decided she was ready to find a new career field. An internet search for “great jobs” led her to dental hygiene. After researching dental hygiene programs, she learned that the School of Dentistry at UT Health San Antonio offers a Bachelor of Science in Dental Hygiene (BSDH).
“Because I had earned a BA previously, I didn’t have the science courses that were required for the BSDH program. I took the 26 hours of prerequisite courses at the Alamo Colleges in nine months with kids at home. It was tough but worth it,” Roush said.
She then began the two-year BSDH program that was different from what she expected. “Unlike traditional undergraduate education, my 30 classmates all took the same courses at the same time. We stayed together throughout the entire program,” she added. “We really got to know each other and support each other.”
Roush said the BSDH program is “very intense. I really had to work hard and prioritize my schoolwork so I could still be there for my children.” With the youngest in pre-school and the eldest in elementary school when she began the program, Roush said she knew she was setting an example for her children, who are now 15 and 13.
“I had to show them you can achieve your goals. I wanted them to see that I could succeed in school,” she said.
Roush earned her BSDH in 2015 and started out temping in several dental offices before working at a private practice until it was sold. That is when she decided to take a chance working with special needs patients in an unusual setting in 2018.
Located near the San Antonio State Hospital on the southeast side, she works in the San Antonio State Supported Living Center with adults who have intellectual and developmental disabilities. Roush sees the majority of her patients once every three months. “At first, I try to help them become comfortable sitting in the exam chair. I had one patient who would come and sit on the floor. I kept working with her until she finally felt comfortable enough to sit in the chair. That was a big win.”
Roush said she must be sensitive to each patient’s very specific needs. “Some have autism, feeding tubes or mobility issues,” she said. “By seeing them every three months, I build a rapport and trust with them. My main goal is help them maintain good oral hygiene. I try to find fun ways to teach them to brush their teeth.”
For patients with complex medical issues, Roush serves on an interdisciplinary team to coordinate and provide care for the individuals who live at the center. “We all work together to make sure they get the best comprehensive care,” she added.
Another unique aspect of her job is that her patients live where she works. “Because the clinic is located where these patients live, I have the unique opportunity to get to know my patients outside of the clinical setting. That helps them to feel more comfortable with me in the clinical setting.”
In addition to educating patients, Roush teaches new employees how to help patients with their oral health care. “I spend an hour during their new employee orientation educating the new employees on the direct relation between a healthy mouth and an overall healthy body. I show employees how to brush the resident’s teeth or how to help the individual brush his or her teeth.”
Roush reached out to Jo Ann Jordan, MA, RDH, director of the dental hygiene program, in the spring of 2019 to ask if dental hygiene students would want to do a clinical rotation in the special clinic. Senior students have a rotation at the state facility once in the fall and once in the spring. Roush now serves as an adjoint assistant professor of dental hygiene.
“I enjoy providing the dental hygiene students with the opportunity to become comfortable treating patients with very special needs,” she said. “We can’t typically do traditional dental hygiene on these patients. The dental students learn how to modify their treatment to provide the best care possible. I hope the experience will help them provide compassionate care for patients who have special needs when they are working at a dental practice.”
Roush said while her work is very challenging, the small wins—getting a patient comfortable enough in the chair for an exam or cleaning—make it all worth it. “Working with the individual patient is my favorite part. It is so much fun. You definitely receive a different type of self-gratification. I feel like I am making a bigger difference. I believe I found my niche,” she added.