September 3rd, 2019

Susan Rountree Schlessinger traveled the farthest for this year’s Caruth School of Dental Hygiene luncheon.

This Texas native and Caruth School of Dental Hygiene graduate calls Switzerland home.

Susan Rountree Schlessinger ’79 has lived and worked in five countries and four languages as a dental hygiene professional. Her experiences elicit an armful of stories, including one from a holiday party at the American Women’s Club in Zurich, where she discovered her professional reputation preceded her.

“A patient of mine invited me, but her table was occupied, so I sat at a different one,” Schlessinger explains. “As we introduced ourselves, I said my name and a woman exclaimed, ‘Oh, YOU are famous!’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ She said, ‘You are THE dental hygienist.’ The next person introduced was an opera singer, who later became my patient, and friend.”

Dental hygiene has been “a phenomenal journey” and her passport to people around the world, Schlessinger says. “It has given me a sense of respect, honor and purpose wherever I go. I discovered the profession is about taking care of people, who just happen to have teeth. It’s the person behind the teeth that is important.”

Why did you choose to attend Caruth School of Dental Hygiene? I grew up in Del Rio, on the Mexican border in Texas, and attended Texas Christian University in Fort Worth before entering Caruth School of Dental Hygiene. Actually, I give all the credit to my sister, Nan Rountree Fritsch, who graduated from Caruth in 1975. She was convinced I should follow her path, and I did, which was the best decision ever! Through the select group of students and professors at Caruth, my life expectations were raised to a new level. It was no longer college, but professional school. My best lifelong friends are from our class.

How has your perception of the profession changed over time? I instantly liked dental hygiene, but did not completely understand the importance of it, until later. At that point, I thought it was all about cleaning teeth. This changed in 1986 when I had the opportunity to work abroad, as Swiss dentists were importing U.S. and Canadian hygienists to work in their dental practices. We were novelties; our profession was new to them. My job was suddenly transformed, because I discovered the general standard of dentistry is significantly influenced by the presence of professionally trained dental hygienists. We are important.

What else did you experience as a dental hygienist in a foreign country? First of all, I truly found out what it meant to be a foreigner. I had to communicate with my hands and photos. I dressed and behaved differently from the Swiss and discovered how lonely it can be to not have a language or family. Yet, as a trained professional, I found respect and access to people. I met my husband as a patient, which changed the course of my life. Together with our three children, we lived in five countries with four languages. I was able to work everywhere; my dental hygiene license and education was always recognized. This is unique from dentists hoping to work abroad; they often have no licensing reciprocity. Through dentistry, I learned to speak German, Spanish and Portuguese.  It’s been an interesting experience and I am glad to have had this opportunity.

Do you have other career highlights to share? I actually owned a private dental hygiene practice in Zurich and built up a patient base by developing my own philosophy of care. That was an important time as a dental hygienist, as I found my own voice and developed local respect as an independent professional. My practice was later merged with a high-end dental practice in Zurich, which allowed me to continue with my patients. Those patients were mainly English-speaking managers, Google employees, international teachers, Swiss internationals and a few VIPs, including tennis professional Roger Federer and his wife (information shared with his permission).

I traveled twice to Honduras as a dental volunteer, which was amazing. One year, I sat on a cardboard box and worked on a mobile unit, wearing headlamps. It was hard work but rewarding. My first patient had slept overnight at the front door to get an appointment with me.

I now work part-time, but I continue to treat a few loyal patients and friends and am in love with my countryside patients. Some have never had access to preventive care, and the impact I can make is still astonishing. I am also helping to launch a mobile dental hygiene service for senior residences in Switzerland. After all these years, my profession is still rewarding and exciting!

What is your most important message for new hygienists? Dental hygiene is not only about cleaning teeth! It is a powerful and rewarding profession, which is built upon relationships and respect. It is the basis and the future of quality dentistry throughout the world. I hope they embrace it as much as I have, as it is truly a beautiful profession.

— Carolyn Cox