I know a lot of people have dentist horror stories, and I also believe– from listening to those stories – that the horror stems not from what actually happened at the dentist’s office, but rather from what the individual’s own fear brought to the procedures. Some people simply can’t descend into that slick, contoured chair without conjuring up images from Marathon Man.
I never had those fears.
At least, not until I was in my early 30’s.
As a child, I’d had what were probably standard experiences for anyone born in the late 50’s. My earliest visits to the dentist – and specifically, those appointments that called for having a cavity filled – included no pain-numbing injections. My dentist – an old-fashioned gent who stood while he drilled and who played the sax in a combo band when he wasn’t wearing his white coat – simply took the process slowly. He pulled back when it was clear that the nerve was alarmed. After a moment, he would proceed. Sure, it hurt. But only in spurts. And only a little.
By my teen years, our family had switched to another dentist. This man, who was younger than the first, recommended the use of Novocain, and since I wasn’t afraid of an injection (I mean, you don’t have to look at the needle), I said, “Bring it on.”
After all those years of feeling the process of having a cavity filled, the numbing afforded by Novocain was an absolute treat. Beyond that, this younger dentist did what dentists have done from that point forward: he sat on a stool and put the patient in full recline mode.
For me, the opportunity to lie down in the middle of the day was a gift. The fact that I didn’t feel a thing made that gift an invitation to nap. I’m not saying I ever fell asleep in my dentist’s chair, but I was always phenomenally relaxed.
I will confess one exception to that statement, and my dentist got a kick out of it. My appointment, you see, was about a day ahead of one of my prep school finals, and I needed to study. So… I brought my notes with me, and as my dentist worked in my mouth, I held the notes above me in the air, and I read them.
The numbing in my mouth was completely gone a full 24 hours before I aced the exam.
Fast forward to my adulthood.
More dentists, here and there.
In New York, never a problem.
In Los Angeles, somehow trickier.
And as I was looking for one near my then-apartment in what is called “Beverly Hills adjacent,” a co-worker recommended her dentist.
We’ll call him Dr. Blatt.
During my premiere visit with Dr. Blatt, I was struck by the seeming passion he brought to his work. He appeared to be remarkably interested in every tooth in my mouth, and as he conveyed his observations to his assistant (and she took notes), his statements straddled a fence between dental speak and English. I got the impression that he was a bit anal.
As I walked home from the appointment (yes, I walked home – in L.A. – that’s how convenient this dentist was!), I thought, Hey, a perfectionist working on my teeth? I could do worse!
A week or so later, I went in for the first of several follow-up appointments. On this particular morning, Dr. Blatt would be working on the upper left quadrant. Apparently, there was a cavity up there, and it needed to be filled.
Until the day of this appointment, I had never experienced a “dental dam,” and for those who don’t know what I’m referring to, I’ll try to paint the picture as quickly as possible. A dental dam is a very thin, round rubber thing that the dentist places in your mouth. In the middle of it, there is a hole that is flush with your throat and allows you to breathe. The remaining rubber is there to prevent uninteresting parts of your mouth from getting in the way of the procedure at hand.
As for the procedure at hand, that is accomplished by forcing the designated work area through the dental dam. I.e., if the dentist is working on a molar near the back of your upper left quadrant, s/he pushes the dam until that tooth – and, I’m guessing, a few neighboring teeth – make their appearance on the working side of the rubber barrier.
So, class, are you with me?
It was new to me, too, but it all went fine. I was reclined, I was relaxed, and since Dr. Blatt was speaking only dental speak with his assistant, I had nothing to listen to but the sound of my body not having to be at work.
I was so relaxed, in fact, that at one point, Dr. Blatt returned to using English words with which I was familiar: “Katie?” he said, soothingly, “ Are you still alive? Because if you’re dead, there’s really no reason to continue.”
Maybe that’s dental humor. Anyway, it didn’t offend me. (I took it as a compliment, actually.) I’m sure I smiled with my eyes.
A week or two later, I was back for more. Another quadrant to be dealt with. This time, it was the lower left.
I was relaxed, numbed and ready to go when Dr. Blatt pushed the dam over the designated work area. And that’s when my jaw moved a bit.
(You see, I have kind of a popping jaw. Not a big issue. Not one for which I have ever sought counseling, but, yes, it pops.)
Dr. Blatt began with his procedure, speaking dental speak to his assistant, and for the first 45 minutes or so, I was okay. There was no pain in the area that they were working on, but slowly… slowly… the jolt to my jaw was starting to mess with my sense of alright. I was beginning to feel increasingly uncomfortable. I was beginning to feel downright nauseous.
I should mention now that one of the little quirks of Dr. Blatt is that, before any procedure, he provides his patient with a little hand mirror in case you want to watch his work!
(In retrospect, I could slap myself for not seeing the red flag in that! I mean, who the hell wants to watch that shit going on? Are you kidding?)
Anyway, I’m lying there, not nearly as relaxed as I had been during the prior appointment. The pain from the jaw pop is starting to get to me in a big way. And, I’ve got this damn dam in my mouth. I’m prone. This is so not a good time to be sick.
I’m seriously concerned, and the gravity of that feeling compels me to communicate as best I can.
I begin to make moaning sounds.
Dr. Blatt responds to those sounds by switching from dental speak to regular English. In a register louder than mine, he begins to tell his assistant about the luncheon he attended the previous week.
I’m lying there in pre-vomit pain and the bastard is ignoring me!
I tap my fingernails on the “patient mirror” that I’ve been holding in my hand. Those taps provide a percussive accompaniment to my continued moans.
Dr. Blatt speaks even more loudly about the luncheon.
I begin to kick my feet up and down, still moaning, still tapping the mirror.
FINALLY, Dr. Blatt acknowledges me, and in a tone that is belittling, he says, “I think Katie wants to tell us something!”
I sit up, and with all the Marcel Marceau in my soul, I mime, “Get this fucking goddamn dam out of my goddamn fucking mouth!” (Pardon my French, Marcel.)
Dr. Blatt removes the dam.
I take a deep breath, and I tell him, “I’m sorry, I feel like I’m going to be sick.”
He turns his head dramatically.
“And now I feel sick,” he says, “because now I am going to have to finish the procedure without the dam.”
Poor Dr. Blatt.
Poor inhumane, sociopathic, perfectionist, let-him-be-road-kill Dr. Blatt.
A week or so later, I was due to go back to him, and I guess I hadn’t fully processed the trauma he caused me because my intention was to keep the appointment. But, when I woke up on the morning when I was due in his office at 9:00, the first thing I did was cry.
I cancelled, needless to say, and I never saw that bastard again.
I’ve had the same dentist now for more than 12 years. He’s wonderful, as is his staff.
I’ve regained my ability to enjoy the opportunity that a dental appointment provides.
…During the day.
The work at hand? …Somebody else’s problem.