SARAH TENNY, Incisal Edge’s inaugural Dental Assistant of the Year, has spent her professional life in the service of patients in her central Pennsyl­vania hometown. “I’ll do this till I retire, as long as nothing hurts too bad,” she says with a laugh. “It never gets old.”

SARAH TENNY HAS always loved going to the dentist. Immediately after she gradu­ated from high school in 1996, the central Pennsylvania native began the dental assis­tant program at Harrisburg Area Commu­nity College. “I always knew I didn’t want to be at a desk all day,” she says. “I thought becoming a DA would be a good career for me because I enjoy people, keeping busy and working with my hands.”

Her instinct was correct. Now 45, Tenny has enjoyed a nearly three­decade career in her hometown, Mechanicsburg, most re­cently at a practice called Search Dental. “Making a nervous patient feel comfortable is my No. 1 priority,” she says. “I’m the first person they’re seeing face­to­face in the chair. Because of that, patients often look to me for confirmation that they’re making the right decision.”

In 2019, she decided to go back to school to become an Expanded Functions Dental Assistant (EFDA). She graduated from the EFDA program (also at Harrisburg Area CC) at the top of her class. “I’ve always loved my job,” she says. “But after I com­pleted the EFDA, I loved it that much more, because I was able to work even more closely with patients and the doctor. I love doing full anterior work—broken teeth, fix­ing people up, truly changing their smiles in a meaningful and positive way.”

The industry—and the work of a dental as­sistant more specifically—has of course witnessed enormous changes in the 25 years Tenny has been at it: “When I first got a job as a dental assistant, we used film and developed X­rays on our own in a dark­room.” She adds that the constant evolution in patient care extends “even to making them feel as comfortable as possible. We have blankets, neck pillows, water and coffee. That wasn’t even thought of when I started as a DA.”

“ Making a nervous patient feel comfortable is my No. 1 priority.”

Tenny lives with her husband and two daughters less than a 10­minute drive from Search Dental, which is under the umbrella of Verber Dental Group, Dr. Michael Ver­ber’s dozen­practice organization in central Pennsylvania, which has previously been featured in the pages of Incisal Edge. Search Dental’s office is just a short drive from Cumberland Valley High School, her alma mater, where she first daydreamed of becoming a DA. Dr. Joseph A. Search heads the practice, which won a Best New Con­struction award in the 2023 Incisal Edge Design Competition. Tenny has known him for a decade. “I love working with Dr. Search; he’s a great support to me,” she says. “He trusts me to do the best I can.”

As lead EFDA and OSHA coordinator at Search Dental, Tenny oversees a team of six EFDA/DAs. She trains all new staff on OSHA protocols, ensuring that the office remains compliant with all federal requirements. Her chairside work encompasses, among much else, sterilization, iTero scanning, taking impressions and X­rays, applying sealants, topical fluoride and anesthesia. “I always say that without us, the office would not run as smoothly,” she says. “But the truth is, it takes all of us to make it work.”

Modest she might be, but Dr. Search himself is not shy about singing her praises: “My suc­cess as a dentist can be directly attributed to the contributions of this amazing individual.”

The pandemic presented its own set of challenges to dental assistants no less than anyone else in a health care setting, natur­ally, as well as new procedures and policies, some of which remain in place. “There has been a big focus on infection control,” Tenny says. “As an OSHA coordinator, it’s very im­portant to keep our patients and staff as safe and compliant as possible.” And although the immediate Covid crisis has passed, Search Dental is still affected by much of what it wrought. “In the beginning it was pretty rough because of full garb and special masks,” she recalls. “It has eased off a little, but I still mask up pretty much all the time in the office. We don’t have to, but I do think it’s kind of expected. I always show my face to new patients, then put my mask back up right away. I want them to know who I am and to feel comfortable.”

In addition to her work at Search Dental, Tenny was a key figure in the development and launch of the EFDA/Dental Assistant Co­op Program at Central Penn College in Summerdale, a town just northeast of Mechanicsburg. Through her work there instructing and mentoring students, she’s also helping alleviate the Keystone State’s acute dental staffing crisis. “It’s an honor to help pave the way for the future DAs,” Tenny says. “I really feel we are the heart and soul of the dental office.”