Looking back on a life-changing career

Dental assistant Mary Harrison gestures toward dentist employer

For Mary Harrison, CDA, EFDA, EFODA, FADAA, of Portland, Oregon, retiring last year after spending over five decades in the dental assisting profession is bittersweet.

In hindsight, Harrison is content to have enjoyed a life-changing career in dental assisting, enhanced by educational experiences and credentials, meaningful patient relationships, and dental assisting volunteerism and leadership roles — including as a former member and officer of the DANB Board of Directors, from 2010-2016.

“Being able to serve on the DANB Board for sure has been the pinnacle of my career,” says Harrison, who served as a DANB Board Director from August 2010 to August 2011, DANB Board Secretary from August 2011 to August 2015, and DANB Board Vice Chair from August 2015 to August 2016. “The people at DANB have become like my family.”

Harrison elaborates that she’s grateful to have built such a large, cherished professional network, including not just DANB staff, but volunteers and members from other dental assisting groups. Through the profession, she’s also established memorable connections with longtime colleagues.

“All this has been so important to me,” Harrison recalls with nostalgia. “It’s amazing, the dear friends I’ve made in my dental assisting career. We always say, ‘You could go anywhere across the country, and if you need something, there’s always a dental assistant you can call’ — that means a lot.”

But it’s when thinking of those relationships she’s built with patients that Harrison feels most emotional about retiring from dental assisting.

Since her retirement coincided with the “stay-at-home” times of the COVID-19 pandemic, Harrison regrets not having the opportunity to say goodbye to many of her patients. “I’ve already been receiving emails from patients who are telling me they’re sorry I retired,” Harrison says, adding that all the positive memories make closing this professional chapter a bit easier.

“I was always so lucky to look forward to going into work every day,” she reflects. “I loved being in the dental office and helping patients, one of my greatest rewards.”

Reflecting on the importance of education

When she was young, Harrison always had a hunch that education would serve as her passport to success — and looking back, she now knows this to be true.

“For me, it’s always been important to learn as much as I could — to learn something new every day and understand that if you do this, pretty much anything can happen,” Harrison believes. In fact, this was the mantra of Harrison’s family growing up. “My parents always said, ‘You have to do the best you can for yourself; you have to work hard,’” Harrison says. “I had that type of support and encouragement from them. At the beginning of my professional journey, I was motivated to become a dental assistant and become DANB Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) certified. That decision changed my life.”

Harrison proudly graduated from the first coed class of students at Salem Technical Vocational College, where she studied dental assisting, in 1964. Afterward, she continued studying dental assisting so that she could become eligible to take DANB exams, earning certification in 1967.

“It was important to me to educate myself and become DANB CDA certified – that was the thing for dental assistants to do,” Harrison reflects. “Throughout my career, being able to write ‘CDA’ as part of my signature has always made a big difference for me.”

As a DANB CDA certificant, Harrison has worked as a clinical chairside dental assistant for more than 20 years with the office of Steve Scheffel, D.M.D. She also is an Oregon Expanded Function Dental Assistant (EFDA) and Oregon Expanded Function Orthodontic Assistant (EFODA).

Reflecting on the rewards of involvement

Early in her career, Harrison quickly learned the importance of not only investing in her education, but also getting involved in dental organizations.

“When I first started out, I knew this was important — to show that I cared, that I wanted to do better, and that I was motivated to learn and do more in my career,” Harrison elaborates.

Specifically, she has been an active member in the American Dental Assistants Association (ADAA) for more than 50 years, making contributions at national, state and local levels. She has held numerous officer positions within the Oregon Dental Assistants Association (ODAA), including president and vice president, and served on various ODAA committees. And she has taken on leadership positions within local dental assisting societies and served on all society committees.

Harrison also won the ADAA Achievement Award in 2006, and she earned Fellowship in the ADAA approximately 15 years ago — an emotional milestone achievement.

Harrison remembers: “During that year’s ADAA annual session Fellowship induction ceremony, my husband, daughter, son-in-law and then-3-month-old grandson surprised me by traveling to the event. I had no idea they were going to be there. This meant the world to me.”

Plus, it was Harrison’s ADAA involvement that led her to DANB — she was an ADAA nominee elected to DANB’s Board of Directors in 2010.

Beyond her extensive ADAA and DANB involvements, Harrison has been a representative to both the Oregon Dental Association and the Oregon Board of Dentistry (OBD); testified before the OBD and the Oregon State Legislature, representing ODAA and all dental assistants in the state; and served as a consultant to the OBD for the assisted chairside, EFDA, and EFODA exams, as well as the assisted chairside exam for the Western Regional Dental Board.

Additionally, Harrison notes that she partnered with Ginny Jorgensen, CDA, EFDA, EFODA, AAS, in a business called Dental Career Advancements in the mid-to-late 1980s and early ’90s, traveling around the state of Oregon providing education for assistants working toward their EFDA and EFODA credentials and taking state exams. “We employed a dentist, dental hygienist and dental assistants helping with some of the courses,” explains Harrison.

Overall, “being involved in dental organizations is a very, very important part of building your dental assisting career and professional network,” Harrison reiterates.

Looking forward

Almost a year into retirement, Harrison plans to spend more time with her family. She will continue volunteering, including with her local church. In the past, Harrison has served with Give Kids a Smile Week Committee and the Portland Public School Fluoride King Program, among other community work. “I’ve always wanted to volunteer anywhere I could help,” she says.

Harrison also anticipates meeting up for lunches and museum trips with friends from both her dental and non-dental worlds. And Harrison hopes to travel more soon; in fact, she and 30- some dental colleagues are planning a cruise for 2023. She looks forward to her first cruise experience, viewing it as a special chance to add more memories to those accrued over almost a lifetime.

“I miss gathering with my peers and talking about dentistry,” concludes Harrison. “To me, dental assisting has always been what I do and will always be who I am.”