It’s like a little horror story that reveals a deep underlying niceness, I think drowsily. I slept little the night before and now I am looking up at a golden orb of light seen darkly through goggles, my body very still, lips stretched into the sort of grotesque shape a mime would create to depict a scream. I cannot make a sound. I’ve been this way a long time, or maybe a little; it’s difficult to discern actual minutes. Industrious hums and grinding noises intrude on my consciousness. I think of the chair I am pressed into–it’s a cool, smooth Granny Smith apple green. A shadow falls on my face and water droplets trickle across my neck and chest. My jaw may crack apart at some point but my tongue already fell asleep long ago in the dry gulch that is my mouth. I want desperately to swallow, so do.
“Doing alright, yes?” Dr. K. asks sweetly.
I nod, then she bears down upon the front tooth again.
There have been occasions when such an innocuous question was my cue to consider putting a halt to business and bolting from the tiny room. But, no, I’ve made a long drive from my home. I will stay the duration. I am willing to put myself into her hands despite the costs of being plied with treatments that often can bring pain. Dr. K., my dentist, was found again after I endured a few months with her old team. They gave me enough trouble.
Saved, I think, despite discomfort. It’s not as big a deal as it could be. In fact, it’s downright pleasant when I consider the alternatives. No one is thrilled to see the dentist but if we can any way afford to have even routine care, we go and endure, sometimes with the aid of drugs to prep us. I have experienced dentist appointments in many ways; my history is chock full of them. But fear of dentists was not natural to me as a child.
Dr. Smith was the first to take care of my teeth. That was back when they were still whiter, neat little gems that encouraged my wide smile to grow wider. His office was on the corner of our street, a small brick square overhung with maple trees. From the patient chair I could watch branches sway in the breeze, see birds hopping about, the weather change; the window was large.
He always greeted people with a glamorous grin (Was it really white back then, before whitening was a requirement? No, likely just charming). His black hair was shiny, wavy, precise. He shook my hand, asked me about my family, then school and activities, then how my teeth had been behaving, as if they were unruly things that he would set right. He didn’t have puppets about or cartoon characters on the walls. Dr. Smith was just friendly in a quiet way. Simply hearing his voice made me feel like I was a member of an appreciated group. Comfortable. He was a handsome man, and I imagined he was a potential movie star who decided to take on dentistry at the last minute.
I was glad to be there, no matter possibility of pain. That was a good thing, as I visited him often enough that his waiting room started to feel like another living room. Despite fluoride in our water in my hometown, good insurance, diligent parents, decent habits and healthy meals, my teeth were trouble. He never once indicated he thought so.
“I’ll take care of this,” he’d say. “I’ll fix you right up in a jiffy.”
He’d tell me, “If it hurts, raise your finger and point right at me. But it shouldn’t hurt; I’ve tried to take care of that for you. We’ll be done in no time.”
He had given me a shot? I had barely felt the prick of the needle because he was talking to me about his garden and kids. Afterwards, because I had managed to sit still and let him do good work, I got to pick a small toy from his reward box.
The years passed; I began to grow up some but still visited Dr. Smith often. Between the two of us, I was managing to keep complete ruin of my perilous teeth at bay. In fact they looked and felt pretty good so far.
A few years later when my mother told me Dr. Smith had drowned on a boating trip I burst into tears. Terrible way to die. Horrible that he would never be there again, that he wouldn’t smile at me and pat my shoulder, shape up my defiant teeth and send me home with a greeting for my folks. I couldn’t imagine how things would be managed and knew his family was heartbroken.
You can see why I was shocked when I got older and visited other dentists. They were too silent or brusque. Many seemed less than happy about their work (many are, I later learned, enough for the profession to have a high suicide rate). Their offices smelled stringent and were a little frightening with their chic colored walls and accoutrements. Who were they kidding? And I hated paying a fortune for the big or small miseries I suspected awaited me. Because my teeth had not stuck to a good course. They had surprises for me like decay, fractures, moving about and coming out. Sometimes they made me ill. I had not inherited good dental genes and worse, I had health issues that added challenges. And my insurance was sometimes not very good. Or it was gone. Who can afford the cost of surgery, crowns and root canals when you have five children and their teeth are more critically important?
By the time I was in my late-thirties I was aware that my smile was not so lovely. I was a smoker and a coffee and tea drinker. Toss in some rum and whiskey instead of food at times. Chronic illness. I knew my history was apparent.
One time a quirky new employer, my manager, told me she remembered people by their teeth; she was studying mine as she spoke. I was so embarrassed that I talked very carefully with her and smiled infrequently. After that I learned to smile in public with mouth closed, lips curling up at the edges. If you knew me, you would have seen it as fake from the start. I am a laugh-out-loud person, a gabber, someone who likes to say hello with a big smile when taking walks or shopping. In fact, I love to laugh and smile so it was tough to not do so more readily.
But I didn’t have much success finding competent–never mind excellent–dentists. One let a dental tool slip down into my throat, and I had a death-defying moment of gagging until he managed to grasp and remove the item. Another gave me a local injection for a procedure that had epinephrine in it, which I cannot take due to bouts of tachycardia, that is, sudden onset of rapid heartbeat (120-140+ beats per minute). It was coded in red on my chart. Sure enough, in seconds my heart nearly thumped out of my chest. It took 45 minutes for it to settle down. I left shaken up and exhausted. The dentist was appalled by the error, yes, but I was done at that office.
There was the dentist who told terrible jokes, even off-color and sexist. I was captive in the patient chair, unable to even protest as he worked merrily away on my teeth. I complained to the office manager but he was still there the next time so that was that for me.
A life changer occurred when a practitioner didn’t take my emergency phone call seriously enough, instructing me to wait over a week-end. An abscess worsened, causing me to become systemically ill. In bed with severe dental pain and high fever, I finally recovered in two weeks after family intervention and a more potent antibiotic. Following this, I started to have strange heart palpitations with dizziness. I dismissed it as a left over from the infection. Years later I would be informed the infection may have caused my early onset coronary artery disease.
Dentistry! I often told dentists that they should save me the misery and pull them all out. Dentures would look great, too.
All this due to those less conscientious than Dr. Smith, I thought. So when I first met Dr. K. I tried to be hopeful once more. I had just left another dental office due to billing issues that lingered for over a year. There were no more expectations of a satisfactory visit but there was yet another crisis. Dr. K. entered the cubicle, small, quick-moving, soft of voice with an Indian accent so thick I tried hard to figure out what she was saying. She repeated herself. I attuned my ear shortly. Dr. K. explained everything before she did it, answered each question as if it mattered, not as if I was demanding too much. Then I received the best dental care I’ve had in decades. In a couple more visits, we chatted easily.
I apologized for my teeth–occasionally dentists look in my mouth and sigh–but she reassured me.
“No, not such a problem. Don’t say take them out. Good to keep them very long. Many are still quite strong. You are beautiful lady. So good you give counseling to people. I enjoy music and art, too. But really, you must smile more, okay?”
She left after six months to develop her fledgling practice. It was forty-five minutes from my neighborhood. I thought that too far to drive. That was before I experienced “dry socket” effect ( a first; may you never get this) following an extraction done by another dentist in the office. I got on the internet and found her office number.
So here I am in one of her green chairs; it is a favorite color of hers. The orange color used to upholster a few others is her son’s chosen color. I know this because she is telling me, that musical lilt to sentences that are clearer to me now, her voice confident, gentle.
“Do you like my new place? Had to do it, Cynthia. It is so close to my home and I have a family, you know. How are your grandchildren doing? Tell me when I am done.”
She works away, explaining what is necessary now and later. She is conservative in her approach, cares to do her very best for each patient, she explains. I know this. I have no fear here.
Afterwards, she tells me this:
“Cynthia, I was just thinking of you right before you called. I had made a small mistake one time, remember? It so upset me. I still wake up at night, think of those things. I wondered how you are doing. I miss my old patients. I now tell you this, how I did think of you. Then you just called my office and I happen to answer. How wonderful you find me again. I will do good work. I hope you come back though it is far.”
I can barely recall the incidenty she referred to but I wanted to hug her. I felt one within her as well. She’d spontaneously embraced me the last time I’d an appointment at the old office. It was right before Christmas; we wished each other happy holidays.
She had said, “You are a beautiful lady, a lovely person, God go with you.” My old teeth demanded I give her a big smile.
But now she had other patients waiting. It was clear she was doing well.
“It’s very good to see you again,” I said. “Thank you.”
Dr. K. stood with hands clasped in front of her as usual when her hands aren’t maneuvering drills and sharp things. She nodded, then attended to the next person.
You can see this isn’t so much a story about teeth or dentists as it is about human nature. How we do better with kindness. How I admit I worry about things like how teeth look even as the world has so much suffering going on. The little horror story part is that I have had a time of it with dentists but the nice surprise is it depends on the actual dentist. Dr. K. seemed so familiar to me that as I wrote this it struck me: she is very like Dr. Smith. Thorough and accomplished. Someone who cares first about people, second about an impressive career. I have been a very fortunate recipient of both their talents.
And I’m still working on this, but expect a full-on smile if our paths ever cross. This one is for the incomparable Dr. Smith, may you rest in peace. I will always be thankful for such careful assistance.