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Living hand-to-mouth

A young dental assistant feels the range of emotions brought about by the pandemic — and faces its dangers. 

McKenna Robertson, 21, wearing the mask and glasses required during her shifts as a dental assistant.
Courtesy of McKenna Robertson

The N-95 mask suction-cups her face, elastic straps tight around the back of her head. A ribbon of metal leaves her nose bruised after a long week at Bluffdale Dental. As summer comes on, the mask will only get stickier and hotter. “They’re horrible,” McKenna Robertson admits with her usual pleasant chuckle. “They’re just horrible.”

She wears it anyway. It would be unthinkable not to, because she works at the nexus of the coronavirus transfer: the mouth. As a dental assistant, the 21-year-old Utahn crams her fingers inside patients’ lips all day. The mask protects her from the stray saliva droplets that often spatter the glasses over her bright blue eyes. Her office briefly switched from spinning toothbrushes to regular ones to combat the onslaught. She also wears latex gloves and, in especially spit-prone situations, a surgical gown.

Today that isn’t necessary when a husband and wife come in. After screening them for COVID-19 symptoms, McKenna seats them in separate rooms — there’s no longer a waiting room. The woman seems friendly and positive, if a bit overwhelmed. Her husband, meanwhile, seems disconnected and distant.

It’s an attitude McKenna can recognize now, three months into the pandemic. She’s been there herself. In late March, the practice closed and left her without a job. She was urged to file for unemployment or look for other work; a co-worker suggested Walmart. Instead, she spent five weeks working for the company that makes software she uses as a dental assistant.

The company sent her two monitors and a computer, which she placed atop a vacant desk in her bedroom. At first, she’d wake up early to go jogging, finish work in time to walk her dog, and spend breaks bouncing on the trampoline in her family’s backyard. She also kept up with her biology studies at Salt Lake Community College. But the tedium — from technical and customer support to online classes, all at home — felt constricting, sucking the life out of her. She even stopped jogging. “Over time, it just took its toll,” she says.

She was able to keep up with car payments and tuition, and help her parents with rent — her stepfather also lost his job — but that meant a cubicle existence in her bedroom. Many of her clients, like the husband in the chair, aren’t as lucky.

He lost his job and, he tells her, hasn’t found anything new. Even if he did, it might be temporary and empty — like her gig. When she tries to make conversation, asking how he’s spending his time, he mumbles something about yard work. Anecdotally, she’s found most patients who’ve lost their jobs are men, and many are filling their time with yard work they’d rather not do.

He and his wife are both here for routine cleanings, but her room feels different. She’s still stressed, McKenna observes, but doesn’t show it as much. She’s hopeful and talkative, focusing on when this will all be over rather than her current predicament. “They’re just wanting it to end,” McKenna says of patient after patient. “That’s the biggest thing.”

McKenna feels blessed. Unlike the man in the chair, she doesn’t have to support children or pay a mortgage. “I’m fortunate that I’m going through this right now as a 21-year-old,” she says. “I can’t imagine what people are experiencing with their families.”

So she keeps things light. She jokes about what it must be like to have young kids stuck at home, banters with each client, and tries to smile with her eyes over the mask.

At the end of the day, with her hands rubbed raw from dozens of washings; with the office smelling like disinfectant; with her blonde hair pulled back, her red quarantine dye job now fading; with mask marks crisscrossing her face, the memory of so many open mouths keeps COVID-19 lingering, like a shadow, over her own wish for normalcy.