By Sylvana Insua-Rieger, 15, Beverly Hills HS
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Photo by Sylvana Insua-Rieger, 15, Beverly Hills HS

When I go for my orthodontist appointments, I am sometimes seen by assistant Tracy Neely, 30, who always seems like she enjoys propping open patients’ mouths to rearrange our teeth to flawlessness. I wondered how she got her job in Dr. Mario Paz’s office in Beverly Hills, and if she had always dreamed of a career working with teeth.

What I found most interesting about a career assisting an orthodontist is that one can go to college for only a year and make a decent living helping people. My interview with Tracy taught me that a medical career doesn’t have to take a lifetime to prepare for.

What kind of education is required for those interested in becoming an orthodontist’s assistant?
In California, I believe that you go to Bryman—you always see it on TV—and it takes six months to a year. After you do that you have to go for your license, because once you graduate you’re just called an “assistant”—a dental assistant—but, if you want more money, you’ll go and take the state board, which is the “practical” and the “written [test].”

[During] the “practical” basically you have to do a crown and … a filling. Not on a live patient but on … fake teeth. If you … take the state board you’re like a registered nurse. So it’s called a RDA (registered dental assistant) instead of just a regular DA (dental assistant).

So basically you do the same job but you get more money if you take more tests?
Right, if you take more tests. I’m an RDA; I can do more than a DA. We can do the braces; we can do the bands [that go around teeth].

Why and when did you decide to become an orthodontist’s assistant?
Actually, I was going to school to be a dentist, and what happened was I did go to college, and I experienced what you call burnout. I said, “You know what? Let me try assisting. If I find that I don’t want assisting, then I’ll become a doctor.” Then I started working and … I just loved it. I said, “I can make decent money and live a good life without having all the stress of a doctor.”

When I was in high school … I wanted to be a photographer, but my mother was like, “You can’t make any money in that!” I said, “Well, she’s right.” I always watched the Discovery Channel and always watched stuff about surgeries, so I was like, “Why not try that?”

Please describe a day as an orthodontist’s assistant.
You see patients all day. I do regular braces and lingual braces, which are the braces behind [on the inside of the mouth]. You might be training and answering the phones, take appointments and help the front desk.

What do you like about your job?
I enjoy when a kid comes in and may not like his smile … and as treatment goes along, you see him talk more, you see him smile more, so that’s what I really enjoy. Even adults, they say, “I couldn’t afford braces when I was a kid,” and then they come in and then they get their braces. I just like to see people happy.

What’s the hardest part about your job?
For me it’s when a parent tells their kid, “It’s scary; you’re going to gag,” so it’s already in the kid’s mind. They’ve never been in a dental office before, and they sit there like, “Oh, I’m gonna gag!” And I’m like, “How do you know?” “Well, Mom told me.” But you may not, and sure enough they don’t gag, and they’re fine.

When you first became an orthodontist’s assistant, were you uncomfortable working in people’s mouths all day?
Yes, I was! Haha!

How did you recover from that?
My first time ever tying and untying … I was nervous, but my friend Janet told me, “Don’t be nervous, girl! Just get up in there and just do it!” My hand was shaking and I didn’t know how much force to put on there. But after I did it then I was OK.

But isn’t it gross working around people’s saliva?
I guess ‘cause you’ve done it for so long, you’ve seen the grossest things you’re gonna see, and smelled the worst—I don’t even wanna say what, but you get immune to it. When I first started out I was like “Aw, this is gross!” but after you do it for so long and like your job, you don’t even pay attention to it.

But sometimes the breath! If it’s too strong, I’m like, “You gotta go brush or something before I start.”

What’s the income range for this job?
I think a DA who did not go for the state board can [earn] something between $10 and $11 an hour. An RDA’s pay can range from $18 to $24 an hour.

What should a high school student do to prepare for this career?
In [dental assistant] school, they teach you the head-neck anatomy … like your teeth, the bones, everything. Once you learn that in school, you’re equipped enough to go take the exam (the state board). But if you don’t have the money to go to school, you have the opportunity to get into an office where the doctor can train you for a year. So instead of going to school, you’re getting trained by a doctor and his staff and then you go take the state board, if you want more money.

Is this a stable job you can keep in the future?
Yeah, I know a woman who’s done it for 15 years. Even if you decide you don’t want to do this anymore, you can teach it.

What skills are needed for this job?
Everyone can’t do this. You have to be good with your hands, memorization and good visualizing of teeth and movement of teeth. That’s pretty much all you need. Even though my hands are big, I can still get in there and do what I have to do. You have to get in there without breaking the brackets, hurting the patient or poking the patient.

In addition to Bryman, dental assistant programs are offered at Cerritos College, Citrus College and Pasadena City College.

What are you doing with the rest of your life?

The health care industry needs you! Health care offers a variety of jobs and careers, with great pay and flexible schedules. Whether you plan to start working right out of high school, or go to trade school, community college or a university, you can follow a path directly to a great future.

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Funded by a grant from The California Wellness Foundation.