2012 Dental Assistant of the Year
Debbie Jones, EFDA
When Debbie Jones, EFDA, was called for her first dental assisting position in 1991, it was an accident. Her older sister was a dental assistant in a private practice, and the dentist phoned asking if she could come in for an emergency. When they couldn’t reach her sister, Jones, who had just graduated, stepped in. “I said I didn’t know how much help I could be,” she explains, “but I was more than happy to come in that day. And shortly thereafter I was hired.”
Jones had attended Walker Career Center while she was still in high school, and therefore became a dental assistant 2 weeks before she graduated. “I had a phenomenal instructor, Marjorie Wanamaker,” Jones recalls. “She was hard on everyone, but I still hear her voice in my head sometimes as I go through my day.”
Working in that first practice, Jones learned a great deal from her sister and the team. “It was understood at the dental office that we weren’t sisters, we were members of the dental family,” she explains. “We all worked very well together. You get to know one another, each person’s strengths and weaknesses without having to think about it, we always knew who was the best one to step in.
“I had learned about caring for patients from Dr. Majors, who treated them as his friends. Watching him, my whole thought process changed. In school, you’re taught that the number one person in the office is the doctor, but that’s not the whole story. The patient comes first. If you can find something in common with patients, you can build a relationship, and they will begin trust you. People may think you’re asking how they are just because it’s your job, but you really have to mean it and listen to their responses. Not just with patients, but with coworkers too. “
During this time, Jones also began to recognize the power of humor and compassion in the oral healthcare environment, for both her patients and colleagues. “When our dental dad, Dr. Majors, passed away from cancer, it was a very sad office,” she says. “Eventually, I realized I couldn’t continue this way, so I tried to bring some humor into the office.”
After this practice was sold, Jones moved on to another general practice, where she had the opportunity to teach a dental assisting course. “They needed an instructor, and the doctor thought I’d be the right person for the job,” she explains. “My first class was 30 students. Fortunately I had two additional instructors helping me. I absolutely loved it. The students gained a foundation in dental assisting, and I was also able to show them what happens in the real world, and how to be prepared.”
Throughout the years, Jones has increased her knowledge through continuing education and by asking questions in the office. “Most dentists I’ve known have been very willing teachers, and I want to know everything.”
Then one day in the office, the dentist suggested she could place an interproximal restoration. “I was concerned I hadn’t had enough training,” Jones remembers, “but they reminded me I’d seen thousands of these performed.” She went to the Indiana University School of Dentistry for expanded functions, and was in the first class in the state for coronal polishing and fluoride application. In addition, she achieved her radiology certificate through the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB).
“Dental assistants have quite a bit of responsibility on their shoulders, but I feel we could contribute much more in many different aspects of oral healthcare,” Jones says. “I believe doctors see that, but there are of course legislative and other issues. I wish the community could tap into what dental assistants have to offer.
“Maybe I’ve been hanging around the dental profession too long,” she says. “I’m a perfectionist now (although maybe I always was). But you have to realize nothing is ever perfect.”
Eventually, Jones began to feel burned out, and considered leaving the dental career. However, after joining Dr. Kirkwood’s practice (where she currently works), she found new meaning in her profession. “Dr. Kirkwood brought dentistry alive again,” she says. “He has a habit of keeping you on your toes, showing you interesting things and talking through procedures, asking and answering questions. He has as much passion for dentistry as I do. And the staff is so wonderful, they are some of the most caring people I’ve ever known.
“I don’t know what I’d do without dentistry,” says Jones, who has been diagnosed with fibromyalgia. “It’s somehow easier to get up and move when you know that there are patients depending on you.”
Jones has turned her experiences into a unique way of giving back. “We all looked up to Dr. Majors,” she remembers. “He used to blow up gloves and give them to kids, and I used color sharpies to put faces on them.” After Dr. Majors died, Jones was looking for ways to keep busy and keep the office spirit up. “I saw some twisty balloons at Walmart, and my husband said just buy them and you can learn how to make balloon shapes. So I started making them for kids in the office.
“I always try to talk to the patients, explain the procedures, and sometimes try to divert their attention,” she explains. “I’ve found humor can help pain—physical or emotional.” As people challenged her to make different and more complex balloon shapes, they kept telling her she’d missed her calling, that she should look into becoming a clown. Eventually she listened.
Jones become a balloon artist/decorator, and is in the process of taking classes to become a certified balloon artist. “After I became a clown, I discovered how easily you can bring laughter to people,” Jones says. As Sunshine the Clown, Jones does fundraisers for Make a Wish Foundation, Multiple Sclerosis, Relay for Life Cancer Walk, Light the Night Walk for Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and Give Kids a Smile.
Between her own health challenges and her efforts to reach out to people, Jones spends a lot of time listening. “If a patient is going through cancer treatment and wants to vent about it, I am there. People tend to open up to me. I’m not giving advice, just letting them know everything will be ok, and you can’t give up. I hope I can help people.
“Everyone is concerned about their purpose in life, but I’ve come to believe we all have the same purpose,” Jones says. “We’re all in this together to help each other through whatever we’re going through. So I don’t worry about my purpose any more.”