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A Day in the Life of a … Dental Lab Technician

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Mindy Bloem
  • 43rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Editor's note: "A Day in the Life of a ..." is part of a 10-week series which focuses on some of Pope's various career fields and offers a first-hand perspective to the readers.
When I noticed those brilliant black and gold colors displayed on the iconic "terrible towel" hanging near Tech. Sgt. Eric Devese's work station, my apprehensions about being in a new environment were suddenly wiped away as I realized I was in the presence of a fellow "Steelers" fan. 

I had decided to spend the day with the dental laboratory technicians of the 43rd Aerospace Medicine Squadron. Now if you are like me, you have never given much thought to who was working behind the scenes creating that perfect fit for whatever dental work you needed done during your visit. 

As I walked into the work area of Pope's only two laboratory dental technicians, I had a sudden flashback to my high school's science lab. There were goggles and Bunsen burners set up at their stations as well as other high tech equipment dispersed around the room. I sat down by Sergeant Devese who was fabricating a crown for a patient's tooth. 

According to Sergeant Devese, there are five main steps involved in making a crown for a tooth. Fortunately for me, I arrived in time to see him working on the crown in the very beginning stages. He was waxing the crown for full contour of the tooth. I watched as he used the Bunsen burners flame to heat up the sharp instrument he was holding. He would then dip the instrument into the wax and carefully apply a small amount to the crown's ridges. He made it look so easy that when he asked me if I wanted to try, I assumed I could do it with little difficulty. Let's just say I don't think I'll be cross training anytime soon. First of all, you have to place the sharp instrument under a certain part of the flame in order to get the right temperature. 

Secondly, you can't leave the instrument under the flame for too long or short a length of time. Also, when you dip the hot, sharp utensil into the wax, you must make sure to get just the right amount of wax on the tip, which means it's important to not leave it in the wax for too long. Finally, when you apply the wax to the crown, you must be careful to apply it quickly and evenly so as not to leave clumps. 

Needless to say, my technique needed some refining and Sergeant Devese demonstrated great patience in attempting to teach me. It didn't take long for me to give the instrument back to him and watch a real expert work. 

Staff Sgt. Candice Reffitt is the other dental technician, and they both seem to get along very well together, which seems a necessity since they are the only two people in that room for hours on end. They both remarked on how it would be very awkward and uncomfortable if they did not get along. They seemed to communicate and work together with the greatest of ease, and throughout the day the dental assistants and dentists would come in to get something and stop what they were doing for a moment to joke and talk with both of them. 

I enjoyed seeing them spending time in the laid back atmosphere and admired the way they worked meticulously on their dental projects. It was comforting to see two people so invested in their jobs. I knew that if I ever needed dental work done, I didn't have to worry about the quality. In fact, Sergeant Devese said the military is more concerned with quality and getting it done right than with trying to get it done in too much of a hurry. He told me it's important to be a perfectionist because whatever they work on is going into someone's mouth permanently. He said it's not like a hamburger where you say, "Oh, it's done enough." 

It was obvious they each took great pride and satisfaction in their work. Nothing was done hastily or sloppily. In fact, Sergeant Reffitt said it was nice because if you are working on one project too long and you feel you need a break from it, you can work on something completely different, so their work never suffers.
As I watched them work, I noticed how the dentists would come back there to congratulate them on a job well done. 

Dr. (Capt.) Jae Lee, a former dental technician, told me that more than 99 percent of the time the dental work, such as a crown or filling, is done correctly and he is able to insert it into the patient's mouth. He said that is a good indication of the great work they do.
I also got to watch Dr. Lee insert a crown into his patient's mouth, a crown crafted by our very own dental technicians. 

After watching Dr. Lee insert the crown, I made my way back to the lab in time to see Sergeant Devese take the previously waxed crown, which had been encased in a stoned investment, and place it in an oven heated to more than 1,300 degrees. This step was done to burn out all of the wax properties, leaving a cavity which was later replaced by molten gold using a broken arm casting machine which acts as a centrifuge. 

This was very exciting for me because Sergeant Devese let me use the blow torch to melt down the gold pieces that were placed inside the crucible. In all my life, I never thought I could use the sentence, "I melted gold today." It was definitely a unique experience. Sergeant Devese informed me that because gold is a precious metal, they have to keep it locked in a safe until it is time to melt it. After I melted the gold, he made the crucible spin around much like your washing machine does, and the gold shot into the cast he had placed in there. 

He then took the cast to the sink and dropped it in a container of cold water to quench it. After it cooled, he used an instrument to break the cast off. He then put it into the microblaster machine and blasts off any remaining debris. Sergeant Devese told me that any mistakes done during this step of the process were unfortunate because that meant you had to start all over. I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best, especially after watching how painstakingly they worked on these projects.
Fortunately, no mistakes happened. 

He then took the crown over to his table and gingerly performed the final steps to the process. He took a disc cutting tool, which looked to me like a miniscule version of a circular saw, and used it to make any final adjustments. After that was done, he used a very tiny buffing tool to polish the crown to a beautiful golden shine. This last step took as much time and attention to detail as the previous steps had taken. 

I was able to see the entire crown process from beginning to end. It gave me profound confidence in the work our dental technicians do, as well as the work ethic of our entire clinic. 

The next time you find yourself getting some type of dental work done, perhaps you should take a moment to thank these diligent technicians who work behind the scenes. I know I will.