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Masks on Masks

Ordinarily, entering clinic is one of the most exciting yet frightening aspects of a dental student’s career. It comes after years of tirelessly studying, working diligently in the preclinical lab, and preparing for the everyday happenings in the clinic. We’ve witnessed countless dentists and student dentists, handpiece-in-hand, and have long awaited the day we are greeting a patient as their provider. Along with this transition come many uncertainties, which can traditionally be addressed through experience and the guidance of upperclassmen and faculty.

This year, the class of 2022 faces an additional uncertainty as the COVID-19 pandemic continuously changes life circumstances, semester plans, and clinic protocols. Our class (Columbia University Class of 2022) spent the month of July preparing to enter clinic. Class schedules were a bit confusing as we were divided into small groups with individual, staggered schedules to avoid overcrowding. The D3 curriculum has been modified and will consist of a block schedule, rather than immediately beginning with comprehensive care. And there have been many preparations… We completed PCR testing upon arrival. We continue to take part in daily temperature and symptom checks. We’re quickly adjusting to new PPE and chair setup protocols and have administrative faculty monitoring the clinic floor to promote compliance. We’re suited up from head to toe (or bonnet to bootie). We’ve got face shields over masks over masks, overgloves on gloves, and goggles or loupes squeezed somewhere in between. On top of that, we’re preparing to practice “4-handed dentistry,” with other third-year students as our assistants -- all in hopes of battling the dreaded aerosols. Oh yeah, and we’ve been getting our hand skills back into shape, too!

While many young people are heading back out to restaurants and bars and are catching up with friends, I have been feeling an increased responsibility to stay in. I’m afraid to let my fellow classmates, professors, and future patients down. While there are many protocols in place if a student or patient is infected, we are still unsure what that would mean for us, our patients, our progress in clinic and procedures going forward.

Some changes are relatively minor – increased PPE, alternating schedules, spaced-out entry times, remote review sessions – and others come at a greater cost – heightened anxiety, increased risk of exposure to ourselves and our patients, and a minimum of 2 weeks loss of clinic time for a positive test. I certainly never imagined that I’d be entering clinic under these circumstances. Nevertheless, I grew more confident as time progressed that we would be able to resume clinic, stay safe, and provide the best care for our patients despite the unique circumstances.

So, the first day of clinic arrives and my four-handed dentistry partner and I are eager to suit up in PPE and greet our first patient. We’ve reviewed the medical history and run through the procedure and… the patient doesn’t show. Well, at least not EVERYTHING has changed.

Alyssa Hanel

CDM '22


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