Inside Dental Assisting
The 2011 Dental Assistant of the Year, Dixie Vallie, CDA, COA, EFDA, exemplifies many of the changes that her profession has undergone during her 35 years in dentistry. Cross-trained in a variety of areas, she has worked in pediatrics, general dentistry, orthodontics, and in a supervisory capacity. She has also made a priority of giving back to her profession, serving as president of the Vermont Dental Assistants Association (VDAA), presenting continuing education courses and occasionally teaching in the dental assisting program at the Center for Technology, Essex in Essex Junction, Vermont. In 2004, she had the honor of being the Vermont Dental Assistant of the Year.
Vermont recently joined a growing number of states with dental assistants serving on their dental boards, and Vallie became the first dental assistant appointed by the governor of Vermont to the State Board of Dental Examiners. This appointment was the culmination of the 5-year effort she began while president of the VDAA to give dental assistants a voice on the board, which includes dentists, dental hygienists, and public members. “Although dental assistants are regulated by the state, there was no one representing our profession on the board,” says Vallie, who explains it was never her intention to assume the role herself. “There are so many other talented people that could fill this position. I wasn’t sure I wanted to take it on.
Recalling the effort, one she describes as “an incredible process,” she explains that Vermont’s dental assistants were supported by people who believed in them, just as they believed in their own position. “Our profession has changed. We have a lot more responsibility. We are educated. We have radiology requirements and expanded functions in this state.”
She says the organization learned the value of perseverance. “We worked hard for 5 years to have a dental assistant on this board. We wrote letters and participated in a number of hearings including the House Committee on Government Operations, which heard numerous testimonies from dental assistants. The legislation almost didn’t pass, but at the last minute it was voted in.”
Vallie has handled her career with similar diligence, wearing many hats and expanding into many new areas. After completing a dental assisting program in Rochester, New York, she began her career first in a small general practice, then moved to a rural health center in Vermont, caring largely for underserved populations, a position that she loved. However, it was during her 17-year tenure with a large dental group in South Burlington, Vermont, that she really expanded professionally. There she served as a dental assisting coordinator responsible for 15 dental assistants during a period when the practice grew from a staff of 36 to 105.
Deciding she wanted something smaller, she accepted a position with an orthodontist, where she has been for the past 11 years. Fortunately, she has been able to continue to work there while fulfilling her responsibilities with the state dental board, which is a significant time commitment. “If you need something done, I’m the person for the job,” she says. “I’ll find some way to figure it out—that’s what I try to bring to everything I do.”
As evidence of that, Vallie returned to the classroom to earn her Vermont expanded function dental assistant credential, working part time and attending school full time for the 6-week classroom duration. Then to apply the didactic skills she learned in the program and complete the externship requirements, she worked in a general practitioner’s office 1 day a week, rather than in her regular orthodontic practice. In the general practice, she was mentored by “an incredible dentist who taught me the intricate details of crown-and-bridge.” Course requirements include completing specific quantities and types of restorations; also temporary crown-and-bridge fabrication. She welcomes the opportunity to use everything she has learned.
While Vallie has always gone the extra mile to get the job done—even while working long hours and while receiving the training and education that has enabled her to excel—her commitment to making the world a better place doesn’t stop chairside. Although she notes that her position on the board of dental examiners now precludes holding positions in dental education or professional organizations, she maintains interests and activities outside of dentistry as well. Because of her love of animals, she has an adopted rescue dog and donates to three humane societies. She and her husband also have worked as volunteers for the Special Olympics for the past 6 years, and she also volunteered at a local ski area as a mountain ambassador. “Anytime I can help, I do,” she says.
Finding it especially satisfying to work with autistic children and assist with cleft palate repairs, Vallie particularly enjoys pediatric dentistry. She stresses the importance of having patience with children and being able to listen to patients of all ages. “It’s important to make your patients feel special and to be a good listener; people will tell you what you need to know if you listen closely.” This, she says, includes whether they are frightened or in pain. “We can’t tell them how they are feeling. When they say they are feeling pain, I believe them and manage it the best I can.”
Dixie Vallie has found fulfillment through continuous learning and professional growth and urges her colleagues to follow her example. “I try to keep an open mind and push myself. Dentistry is constantly changing, so there is always a lot to learn in this profession. If you don’t learn something new every day, you’ve missed an opportunity.” She advises dental assistants in all areas to be team players and respect their coworkers. “Leave the place better than you find it, and respect the reputation of the team in addition to your own.”