For the Love of a Dentist
I think almost everyone fears the dentist. The dentist is worse than income taxes. The dentist is worse than the first day of high school. The dentist is losing your wallet, being in a fender bender, and running into your ex for the first time after a breakup, all rolled into one.
This death-defying fear all starts one sunny, innocent day when you swing around the window of Chick Fil A and order a large sweet tea. You have spent all day wrangling kids, groceries, bills, insurance companies that tell you your call is important (while you wait 20 minutes listening to tinny elevator music, terrified to put the phone down lest they answer and hang up). You deserve a large. Life is good.
The sweet people hand out your tea, tell you it’s their pleasure, and life is glorious. You take that first, glorious sip, and the sweetness hits your very soul . . . You chew a waffle fry. Crisp, salty perfection– the bicycle seat counterpart to the wimpy shoestring fries. Here . . . have a fry the size of a lily pad. Enjoy that. You’re welcome.
And then you do it. You do what your Mom and your teachers and everyone else who knows anything about anything always told you NOT to do. You grab a piece of ice and crunch it gleefully between your teeth. Ahhhhh, the bliss! The icy, frozen loveliness shatters and creates the most alluring Antarctica in your mouth on this hot summer day. You grin and crunch another piece.
PARALYZING PAIN!!! Something goes crunch, all right, and it’s not your ice cube. It’s your tooth. The tooth that you so lovingly brushed and flossed and cared for all these years. You have given it vitamins. Whitened it. Made it the focal point of your family photos. This tooth has been treated very well. And THIS is the thanks you get? Mouth throbbing, you place a call to the dentist.
A gum chewing teen on the other end tells you that *POP* we don’t, like, have an opening for another 4 weeks, for like . . . pain. You can either *POP* take some tylenol and wait for a cancellation, or you can try another dentist. Like, we have after hours emergency care *POP*, but it will be like, extra, like, money.
So you pay the after hours emergency fee. Your kids never had a chance at college anyway, right? Who needs two cars. Christmas gifts are overrated. You sit in the crowded waiting room with the other freaked out patients, leafing through magazines at the speed of light and trying in vain to read anything on the page as your heart pounds out of your chest. Each time the receptionist comes to the window your heart goes into your throat. Is it . . . MY TURN? Your palms start to sweat. “John Smith?” Relax. Another sheep for the slaughter. You escaped this time.
But, finally, you hear it. YOUR NAME. She calls YOUR NAME. You swallow. She calls it again, and everyone starts looking around, lest in your terror you have crawled under the seat and they can steal your appointment slot. It is a Saturday morning, after all, and walmart is waiting.
You stand to your feet, trying not to clutch your hands together in terror, and follow the little white coat to the back of the torture chamber– uh, I mean– dental office. The dentist smiles, all pearly white, of course, and snaps on purple plastic gloves. “How ARE we today?” Mentally you think, “Obviously, near death, or I’d never get anywhere near this place. Please cut off my ears or whatever you’re going to do, and let me go.”
“Oooohhhhh let’s take a look. What do we have here???” (Oh, I don’t know. How about teeth? The things you see every single day. I bet you’ll find those in there). Yet, the dentist appears delighted to have found teeth, as if perhaps he was expecting to open your yawning gullet and find a pink slip and a frown. “Oh dear. That looks very nasty. I think that’s going to need a root canal or maybe a crown. Let’s take a look.”
And here the misnomer starts. Because technically “taking a look” should not involve pain. It should not involve prodding, or poking, or goodness sakes little machines that blow water at you and splash you in the face while you try not to gag and die as they suction your mouth out. The roof of your mouth feels so oddly fluffy and dry with those cotton wads in there, while everything else is like the floor of a shower– water swirl and all. Oh goodness is that a needle?
In plunges the happy juice, and your cheeks start to feel fat. You start to realize that this is how they planned it all along– disable the victim, insert sharp, evil looking little tools, and chop away at your poor, unsuspecting molars. Your teeth disappear in a cloud of tooth dust as the happy dentist saws away cheerfully, asking questions that you try to answer through the Chinese water torture and saying, “Now stay open WIIIIIIDE for me now!”
After about 4 hours, more money than you care to admit, and a jaw that’s about to resign if it has to stay open for one . . . more . . . second . . . it’s over. “See you in 6 weeks!” he smiles cheerfully, snapping off the gloves. “Have a great day!”
You should feel like a queen. You just got a crown, after all. So why does it feel more like the escape of a lifetime as you leave through the waiting room, avoiding the gazes of the next victims which seem to say, “She is still alive. That’s a good sign, right?”
Oddly, I never, ever feared the dentist, until recently. In fact, believe it or not, I always greatly anticipated my visits to the dentist. Before you clap me in a straight jacket and throw me in the looney bin, let me explain.
For years, our family dentist was sweet Dr. Z. We lived in the middle of nowhere, PA, and the closest dental office was about a 30 minute drive away. The roads wound through beautiful Amish country, rolling hills, and picturesque farmland. It was very common to pass tractors or Amish buggies on the roads. Life was quiet and peaceful.
The dental office was a small, country practice. I’m sure that usually, someone entering a medical office carrying a firearm would be considered a hostage emergency. Not here. Everyone brought in hunting rifles and deer heads to show the Doc, who was a big time hunter. “Wow a 10 point this year Chris! That’s a nice one!” The door would open, and he would come out to inspect it, while the owner beamed with pride. “Is that a new hunting rifle? *low whistle* Oh she’s a beauty!” Dr. Z and his wife, “Mrs. Doc,” who doubled as both receptionist and dental assistant, knew everyone by name.
“How are you doing today, Carl? How’s Judy doing? How did her surgery come out?”
“Bonnie so glad to see you out and about! How was the vacation! Did your son look proud in his graduation from the Naval Academy? We are all so proud of him.”
“Dave how ’bout those Steelers, huh? Maybe superbowl this year?”
Each person was recognized, greeted by name, and cared about. Doc and Mrs. Doc never had to be reminded of who you were, what you were there for, or what time your appointment was. They always knew.
When I graduated from high school and went away to college, I was scared. I had never been away from home, and South Carolina seemed about as far away from Pennsylvania as the moon. I was so homesick that for the first 3 days I didn’t leave my room– even to eat. The foods were strange, and the accents were stranger. It was hot and muggy like I’d never known. Spanish moss clung to trees like a specter in a bad dream. I hated it and wanted to go home.
That first Christmas home, freshman year, we had a severe car accident when a driver swerved into our lane on the interstate on the way home. The accident left the car barely driveable, the driver seriously injured, and all of us at the hospital, waiting to be checked. We found out that the car had rolled multiple times, and we were lucky to be alive. it was years before I could ride in a car, again, without fighting a rising tide of pure panic. To this day, when someone swerves toward me, I have flashbacks and have to quell my rising anxiety.
When I called to cancel my dental appointment after the wreck, Mrs. Doc immediately asked how I was– was everyone ok? Goodness I’m so glad. I have been praying for you, and I’m glad to see it’s working! She rescheduled my appointment for a week or so later, so that I could rest up and heal a little bit from the soreness, and she somehow worked the schedule so that she could squeeze me in during their busiest time of year.
I found out later how they did it– she and the Doc worked through their personal lunch, so that I could have an appointment. When I asked about it, they just smiled and said, “You’re ok. That’s what matters. We can eat anytime.”
When I came home for Christmas sophomore year and had my yearly checkup, they asked me how I was doing in school. “You’re a hard worker. We know your grades are good. And we pray for you and always ask your Mom and Dad how you’re doing. We are so proud of you.”
Junior year– I needed a few fillings replaced, but being a college student without dental insurance, I wasn’t sure I could afford to have them fixed. Doc said, “Well I’ll tell you what. How about I do 3 for the price of 2? I’ll have some extra cement anyway, and I might as well use it. I know you’re working hard in school, and you’re paying for college. My kids are in college, too. I know how it is. You pay what you can, and we’ll figure it out.”
When I graduated from college, I got a teaching job in South Carolina, and I still made the 13 hour drive home to go to Dr. Z as my dentist. For some reason, it just didn’t seem right to go to anyone else. Doc and Mrs. Doc always asked me how I was doing– was I “behaving”? They always told me they were proud of me, that they were praying for me, and that they were glad I was doing so well. They would fix up my teeth, give me a toothbrush, and send me on my way. “Say hi to your parents for us!” they would call out as I left.
When I married and moved to Virginia, I still kept going to PA for my dental appointments. I just didn’t trust anyone else. I would make the (now) 6 hour drive home, visit my parents, and go to the dentist. Dr. Z always squeezed me in. They always took time to ask how I was, and they never rushed. They always told me they were praying for me.
Right about the time I reached the 20 year mark with Dr. Z, he began experiencing some health issues. When we heard that Doc and Mrs. Doc had decided to retire and close the dental office, everyone was heartbroken. Dr. Z and his wife were part of the community in so many more ways than just as our dentist. During my last appointment, they cleaned my teeth just as they had for nearly 2 decades. I looked one last time at the curled magazine photos on the ceiling, and one last time held my mouth open wide for the examination. Mrs. Z gave me a big hug. “We love you sweetie. We’re gonna miss you around here. Remember– we are always praying for you.” They gave me two toothbrushes– one for now, and one to grow on.
I still write to Mrs. Z. Her letters are full of the sweetness that she always embodied. They are special, and caring, and warm. Sometimes, she sends recipes. Sometimes, she tells me about some new adventure that she and Doc are doing– because, like many other hardworking country people, they don’t ever sit still for long. She asks about my children, and what I’m doing. She tells me she cares and that she is praying for me.
Going to another dentist feels like being served Chef Boyardee when you were expecting Nonna’s homemade ravioli. It falls so very . . . flat. This dentist doesn’t know my name, and the first thing the people ask me at the window is “Where is your insurance card?” No one knows that I have 2 kids. No one knows I was a teacher. No one really cares anything about me, except what my insurance number is. People sit in the waiting room, nervous and sweating, waiting for the inevitable call of their name. The dentist is quick and professional and robotic. His smile is forced. “Have a great day! See you in six months!” I bet if you saw this dentist at walmart, he wouldn’t recognize you. He wouldn’t say hello or ask how your parents are doing. He wouldn’t ask how Christopher is liking his first year of school. He wouldn’t see you at a restaurant and teasingly tell you to order dessert so that he could fund his kids’ college education. He wouldn’t know that you use 1.5 toothbrushes per year, and that you need 2 toothbrushes every other visit, as a result. He wouldn’t do any of those things.
I guess the world has come a long way. After all, we wouldn’t want to go the old school route and have our teeth extracted in the back of a covered wagon with nothing but a slug of whiskey to ease the pain of our souls. We wouldn’t want to have cavity teeth pulled, because the dentist didn’t know anything else. We wouldn’t want to die of simple infections that, today, can be easily cleared up with antibiotics.
And yet, with all this “progress,” perhaps we’ve missed something. Perhaps we have lost a little of the human factor of it all– the fact that patients are people– people with families, and cares, and burdens on their shoulders. Maybe we’ve forgotten that kids are scared, and that little homey touches like colored pictures on the wall and a doctor who remembers your name and your favorite color, can make the visit so much easier. We forget the beauty of a lady who always scheduled both your and your brother’s appointments together, so that you can share a car, when your family has only one. We forget that professionalism is no substitute for humanity– and that convenience can never replace care.
Each time I go back to PA, I think of Dr. Z and Mrs. Doc. When I take that windy country road that I traveled so many times, I can’t help but think of them. They truly are a dying breed– the rare combination of professional excellence and personal care. I never once feared going to the dentist, as long as they were there. There are no substitutes for quality.
Dear Doc and Mrs. Doc– you are more appreciated than you know. You are more loved than you can imagine. You are more missed than I can put into words. And your years of quiet faithfulness and true hearts of care for everyone you met made more of an impression on me than I can ever express.
I love you both, so very much.
You did it. And I’m just so proud of you.
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