Suzanne Snizek's desk at the Petrova Elementary School in Saranac Lake is an organized clutter of folders, papers and pamphlets; no different than most desks except hers is littered in teeth.
"You only have so much to work with," Snizek laughs as she makes tooth bookmarks promoting Dental Health Month. "I make everything into teeth - everything."
Her gesture encompasses a tooth-shaped pencil holder, models of teeth and pictures of the tooth fairy. A closer inspection reveals the pictures are of Suzanne dressed as the tooth fairy. "Sometimes I go into the classrooms to teach the kids dressed as the tooth fairy, but it is at the discretion of the teacher," she grins.
Suzanne Snizek, dressed as the tooth fairy, promotes Dental Health Month
(Photo — Diane Chase)
"I came from South Jersey, outside of Philadelphia. It is a gorgeous town that hasn't changed at all. I still feel this bond when I go back to visit my mother and see the small, close-knit community, similar to here," she said. "I came here because of my husband. He is from central New York and used to come to the Adirondacks to backpack and hike. We met in college at Old Dominion (Norfolk, Va.). I earned my bachelor's degree in dental hygiene there. Most hygienists have associate's. Old Dominion has a bachelor's and master's in dental hygiene and it is one of the top-rated dental hygiene schools in the nation.
"We got married and moved to Indiana while my husband went to graduate school."
While her husband studied, Suzanne looked for work as a hygienist. She was licensed in the Northeast. Indiana was one of the only states that did not grant reciprocity.
"We knew we were only going to stay in Indiana until my husband finished graduate school, so I didn't want to have the expense of retaking the boards. I did find out that I could use my hygiene license and work for a men's state prison. I was 23 at the time. It was a great experience and I learned so much. I worked with some interesting people, dentists from around the country and the inmates were assistants."
She worked there for a year and during her tenure became pregnant with her first child.
"Ed and I really missed the mountains," she said. "Indiana was so flat and landlocked. We were geographically challenged. The mountain to water ratio wasn't there for us. Growing up in Jersey, I spent all my summers on the shore so we were anxious to move back to the Northeast."
After graduating, they moved back to New York and the job search began.
"Ed ended up getting a job in Ray Brook," she said. "I took some time to settle into my new area because at that point my second child was on the way. Something always works out. I ended up working part time. I was able to keep my hands in it and keep current. I have four children now, so childcare was a huge concern."
To keep her license current, Suzanne has to reregister every three years to be in good standing and take 24 hours of continuing education courses within that three-year time frame.
"Even when my children were growing up, I continued working and staying up to date so that I would be in good standing and remain licensed.
"We bounced around for about three years, moving back to Utica but we really missed it here (Saranac Lake). We then moved back to the area and ended up in Cadyville and I started working in Plattsburgh. We eventually moved to Vermontville, where we live now. At one point, I was living here and commuting to Plattsburgh for work." But then Dr. Neill opened an operatory and they called and I started working there a couple days a week while still commuting to Plattsburgh.
"This job (as the Petrova Elementary School dental hygienist) came available when Karen Harwood was retiring. I really admired her and knew her from her visits to the dentist office with the school children. I really loved clinical hygiene, working in the general practice. I had done it part time my whole career. I was very happy at Dr. Neill's office."
She comments that the two jobs are too varied to compare.
"I go into the classrooms and I'm able to be creative and hopefully engage the kids," she said. "That is what my bachelor's in hygiene does afford me. A hygienist with a bachelor's is qualified to work as a clinical instructor, so I do have some educational background.
"Finally it was worth getting my bachelor's because it is perfect for this job, to use all the education that I went to school for and the experience and apply it in a different way."
At teachers' requests she will go in and teach dental hygiene, especially this month as it is National Dental Health Month.
"I am specifically working with the first through third grades and, new this year, the Pre-K.
"In the office, you are completely at the disposal of the schedule, using your clinical skills, doing x-rays, doing some education but really layering it within everything else. It is always a race with the clock. Here I don't have that race. I can take the time with children that really need it. In an office setting, visits are very scheduled.
"I have the flexibility to do what I need to do. I still clean some teeth for some children and, if I receive permission from the parents, I will do some work with a child. I also started the sealant program for second- and third-graders. So I can use my clinical skills at that time.
"This job is a complicated situation. Most people I work with probably don't know that even though I am employed by the school my salary, travel, supplies and expenses are reimbursed by the Saranac Lake Voluntary Health Association (SLVHA)."
The Saranac Lake Voluntary Health Association (SLVHA), located on Main Street in Saranac Lake, is a nonprofit organization offering the Saranac Lake community visiting nurse services, medical equipment, the Elementary School Dental Hygiene Program and financial assistance based on recommendations from the hygienist and visiting nurse. Originally established in 1897 as the District Nurse Association, the name was later changed to the Saranac Lake Society for the Control of Tuberculosis and subsequently changed again to the Saranac Lake Voluntary Health Association.
She goes further to say that she takes no benefits from the school, but because she is working at the school she is under their umbrella. "The SLVHA saw the need back in 1981," she said. "The first school hygienist came to the school to pilot a program because numbers indicated that dental health and the education of it was a necessity within the school district. There were a high number of kids that had dental disease. When I came on board in 2002 most of the program was established.
"My biggest challenge is how to show the importance of good diet and good dental health."
She realizes that cost is an issue.
"Parents are always the first and best teachers in regards to good hygiene and dental health. It can be challenging with two working parents that sometimes dental health is put aside when money is tight. That is where Voluntary Health does such a magnificent job. Voluntary Health has been known to step in.
"SLVHA has even provided financial assistance to families for dental care when necessary. I provide information to the SLVHA board so they can approve funds for those families."
Suzanne continues to explain the SLVHA's involvement.
"They have been able to help those families in the school system that fall between the cracks, hard working families that can't get other aid but perhaps don't have the coverage for dental health. It just furthers this unique organization's goal in making dental health accessible to this district.
"I am fully available to the kids. I see kids all day long for all sorts of reasons, from canker sores, oral hygiene, to an abscess. The kids see me a lot. They utilize me. In that regard, I see myself as the dental oral health ambassador and that fits with my own personal philosophy.
"I always wanted to have children not be afraid to go to the dentist. I always had a great experience. I want children to feel comfortable going to the dentist, that it is just another thing we do to keep healthy."
During a lesson on health care providers, one second-grade teacher asked her class what Mrs. Snizek did and a student replied, "She's the gentle hydentist."
"The teacher wrote me a note to let me know," she said. "I can't think of a higher compliment than that."
There is no such thing as a typical day, Snizek said. She screens every child with a quick visual exam without the use of x-rays. She sends forms to parents if any concern arises. Then there is the fluoride form and state standard forms for the sealant program.
In 2007, she saw almost 700 children.
"I see all the elementary children throughout the course of the year and middle school kids on referral from the school nurse," Snizek said. "I even see some high school students based on recommendations there."
Some travel is involved. She goes to each one of the schools. A portable office is pulled out from behind the dental chair. It is a bulky black case that she sets up at Bloomingdale. Filled with hand pieces, suctions and materials for the sealant program. She leaves the case at whichever school she is doing sealants until her work is completed with participating students.
She recommends getting sealants.
"It is one of the best preventative procedures for permanent molars," she said. "Children typically get their first set of molars when they are six so we wait until most kids are in second grade and have their first four adult molars. Most cavities in children are in their molars so the sealants provide a plastic barrier between food and the teeth."
The American Dental Association's (ADA) research showed that concerns of the exposure of BPA from composites, tooth-colored fillings, sealants and resins were not warranted at this time. Snizek, as a further precaution, chooses to use a sealant that is BPA-free.
"I try to be mindful as a parent, a mother and an advocate of health to stay on top of issues and concerns such as that," she said. "I try to be current with any information."
She does a weekly fluoride program. She stresses that research indicates that fluoride provides protection from decay and makes developing teeth stronger.
"The state Dental Bureau provides fluoride for all districts that do not have it in the main water source."
She further stresses the fact that children's developing teeth need just that bit more of protection. "There are advocates against adding fluoride to the water, but I stand by the research," she said.
This job has her working a school schedule. During the summer she continues to hone her clinical skills in the office.
"I work with Dr. Neill and last year I worked with Dr. Murray," she said. "I love it. It offers me the opportunity to do what I know best and to sharpen my clinical skills and to work with the doctors. Every day I work in the office I learn something that I can apply to the children here at school.
"I have had other people out of the area ask if this resource (the SLVHA) is available in other districts. It is only available to children and families of the Saranac Lake Central Elementary School."
She continues stressing the unusual occurrence of having a full time dental hygienist in a school. "When I attend continuing education classes and conferences people will comment on how unique it is and how fortunate we are to have a full-time hygienist in the school. It is unique and I am thrilled that SLVHA saw the need and that I can be a part of it.
"SLVHA offers this opportunity to me, families and children of this area. As a hygienist, to be working in a nontraditional setting, to work as an educator and have access to the kids allows me to be a bit more creative and hopefully make a difference."
Suzanne tries to make the loss of a tooth at school an important milestone. She'll make each child a paper molar with their name and the date they lost their tooth. She arranges the display by age, class and number of teeth lost on a bulletin board outside her office. At the end of the year the students are given their paper teeth for their memory books.
She comments how she finds students outside her office pointing to their names and those of their friends. The children are also given a treasure chest to hold this most prized possession.
"I try to reach them in subtle ways to bring awareness and celebrate a landmark, anything necessary to plant that idea of good dental health."