How do you show empathy through a mask?

How Do You Show Empathy Through a Mask?

          I was so excited to get back to work, feeling like I am giving back to society and keeping my patients healthy and in tip-top shape, but then I thought about what getting back to work in the dental field entails. Yes, we wore a mask with our patients during treatment before COVID, but now we are required to wear a mask at all times. Not just any mask, but a hot, stuffy, uninviting N95 mask, which must be worn even when we are greeting our patients at the front door of the office. I know a lot of things have changed and most of the new protocol is manageable, but this welcoming our patients into the office with a N95 mask on is where I struggle.

I am the type of provider that enjoys building rapport with my patients through smiling, eye contact, conversations about family, hobbies and sports, shaking hands, hugging (when appropriate and professional) and the occasional touch on the shoulder for reassurance or trust. This is the way I have operated for my entire dental hygiene career and feel it has created a welcoming, positive and trusting environment for my patients, but now I am feeling lost. How do I convey all the non-verbal acts without touching or being able to show my smile?

Well, a least I can still have eye contact and conversations with my patients. The conversations, of course, are muffled through 3 layers of masks and shields, but good thing no one has ever taken me for being quiet so I have that going for me. I have been trying really hard to stay positive about COVID, this situation in particular, and feel that a positive outlook has kept my spirits up. In all reality, the part that has made this conflict a little easier is the understanding of my patients with me during this time. My patients have been thankful, patient, kind, and most importance understanding (I think I already said that). This environment surrounding me has made me forget about the extra layers we are wearing, because we all are wearing them and concentrate on the real connection which is the actually conversation. I also feel that patients can still tell when I am smiling, because I use my eyes and my words to express my smile. Joking about smiling under my mask and that my hair is brown under my new fancy hair cover just in case they were wondering helps too.

Everyone says this, but we truly are all in this together. For me, being passionate about my job and patients has helped me stay positive, try my hardest to overcome my normal non-verbal mannerisms and stay patient when things start to pile up and get hard. My love for people has kept my spirit up and allowed me learn to communicate in a new way, through all the layers separating us. Finally, my genuine care for the community that surrounds me has made getting up in the morning to go to work and put on my N95 mask for a full day worth every second!