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Return visit

After 14 years as hygienist, Schminke comes back as dentist
Dr. Trish Schminke and Dr. Jeremy Tu after Schminke rejoined the staff at Design Dental in North Liberty, where she started as a hygienist in 2002. (contributed photo)

NORTH LIBERTY– “I feel like I’m home,” Dr. Trish Schminke said.
Schminke, 43, obtained her Doctor of Dental Surgery degree from the University of Iowa (UI) earlier this year and returned in July as a dentist with Design Dental in North Liberty, where she started as a hygienist in 2002.
“It feels even better than I thought it would,” she noted happily.
But it took the 1995 Linn-Mar graduate some time to find her calling.
A native of Marion, she initially attended the UI on a pre-med track.
“I wasn’t a very good student,” she recalled. “I always was in high school, then college was a different ball game, so I really had to re-evaluate where I was in life and what I wanted to do. All I knew was that I wanted to help people.”
Although she was learning toward nursing, her mother found an ad in the newspaper for a dentist who would hire an assistant and train them.
It changed Schminke’s life forever.
She applied and was hired.
“I fell in love with dentistry my first day in the field,” she said. “I absolutely fell in love.”
Schminke worked as an assistant to Dr. Jeremy Tu at River City Dental Care, in Iowa City.
“Shortly after, he opened Design Dental,” she continued. “And I wanted to follow him, because I thought he was the greatest thing. Still do.”
She completed Kirkwood Community College’s dental hygienist program and spent the next 14 years at Design Dental, first at its Beaver Kreek Centre location and then at the current site on Highway 965.
“From the day he opened his doors, I was there,” said the longtime North Liberty resident.
A dental hygienist is responsible for direct patient care, managing soft tissue and the bone that surrounds the teeth, she explained.
Hygienists perform cleanings, take radiographs for dentists and help lay the foundation for oral care, translating the dental treatment prescribed for a patient into terms they can understand, she added.
Schminke remembers the early days, when Design Dental had 10 patients, not enough people to keep her busy, so she’d help with the front desk, or go home and get on the treadmill.
“He’d call me up and say, ‘Hey, we had a patient walk in the door.’ So I’d get off the treadmill and run back to work and act like I’d been there the whole time,” she recalled. “The first days were fun when we were fighting for people. It was good.”
Even then, she knew she wanted to go to dental school and started taking classes.
In 2012, she enrolled at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids to tackle her dental pre-requisites, graduating in 2015 with a Bachelor of Science in biology.
A large class load prompted her to take a year off from Design Dental in 2014 to concentrate on her studies, but she came back for a year before starting dental school in 2016.
Over the next four years, she worked only a handful of days at the North Liberty office.
“The course work is so rigorous, there’s just no time,” she said. “They don’t allow you to work for the first couple years.”
Her traditional dental school education ended abruptly after spring break due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and she didn’t get to say goodbye to the faculty, staff and patients.
“I didn’t get to thank them,” she said. “I just disappeared. That was heartbreaking.”
She graduated in June, applied for her licensing and started her first day as a dentist July 7.
It’s been a process to adapt to the new protocols inside Design Dental.
During her 20 years in dentistry, Schminke’s never had to switch a coat between patients or wear two masks and a visor.
“I really have to stop and think before I walk into each patient– what I’m supposed to have on, physically look to see that I have it on,” she noted.
She was fortunate the staff at Design Dental already adopted recommendations from the American Dental Association and procured the necessary protective equipment.
“I just got to walk in and have them tell me the protocol and put it on,” she explained. “I didn’t have to do any of that. They did a great job of complying with what’s going on.”
She’s settled in with co-workers she’s worked with for years and years, and she wants her patients to feel the same.
“We want you to feel comfortable here, and you should,” she observed. “I love that part of my job. I love taking the fear out of dentistry and being able to help people and help them understand how dentistry has an effect on your entire wellness system.
“There are systemic links to things that go on in your mouth, and for one to be healthy, the other needs to be healthy,” she continued. “I love educating patients on that.”
Schminke has the ability to put people at ease with her earnest approach to becoming and staying healthy.
“Not a lot of people like to come to the dentist, and it shouldn’t be that way,” she said. “It’s not as scary as it was, the horror stories you hear most often happened so long ago, and it doesn’t have to be that way anymore.”
First and foremost, she wants you to like visiting Design Dental.
She remembers back when there were only two hygienists and two assistants.
Patients would come for an appointment and not leave. Instead they would hang out at the front desk.
It was a stark contrast to her time as a waitress, when people always seemed miserable even though they were out for an evening. It’s hard to believe she has a job at a dental office where people have fun.
Dr. Tu is doing something right, she explained.
“He treats his patients with respect and listens to them, and we have fun and the environment here is like no other,” she said. “Dr. Tu has always been a mentor, not just in dentistry but life. He’s a great person. I just can’t imagine being anywhere else.”
Patients are always the first priority, Schminke said. The staff at Design Dental make recommendations as to what they think is best, but it’s ultimately the patient’s decision.
“We’re all about education,” she said. “I’ve always felt if you know what you’re going into, you understand why it has to happen, it makes it easier to accept and then to deal with the procedure.
“I want your dental experience to be comfortable,” she concluded. “I want it to be fearless. I want it to be painless, we do our best with that.”