April 13, 2009 - Monday 7:01 PM
There I was, on my back, off the ground with my mouth open wide. He had instruments; drill bits, probes, and needles attacking my internal flesh and bone. I had to trust him. Yet, I’d never felt so vulnerable.
He’d been my dentist for over ten years. I’d trusted him. I’d had a sign that maybe I shouldn’t trust him. A friend I’d referred to this man for a cleaning came back and said, “He’s the worst dentist. How can you see him?”
I didn’t think he was the worst dentist. I liked that he was relaxed, independent, and not stuffy or clinical. Maybe he wasn’t as thorough as other dentists… he didn’t take x-rays during every visit. He also didn’t charge exorbitant fees.
I also liked that he reminded me of my childhood dentist who I had a crush on. Whenever I had a dental issue, I went to this salt and pepper full head of haired man. I didn’t go regularly. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t have kids. I figured if I couldn’t get myself to the dentist every six months, what made me think I could get my kids there without a fight?
There I was, having driven over thirty-five miles to get to him, because he was in the old neighborhood where I used to live.
When I entered the office, there was no one there but him, sitting at the front desk. I knew I had a filling in the back lower right of my mouth that needed to be crowned. I knew that meant I needed that nasty shot in my jaw that hurt so much.
“Can you put on a topical to ease the pain?” I asked.
“A topical won’t help you. The shot you need is about this long,” he said as he motioned with his thumb and pointer finger that the shot was to enter into my jaw about two inches. “When I have to get that blocker shot, I always dread it myself. It’s the worst,” he added, I’m sure, to comfort me.
I mentally prepared myself and endured the prickly penetration. After all I told myself, “Grandmother could endure dental work without Novocain, least you can do is endure the shot.”
A minute later as he was preparing something over on the counter with his back turned to me he said, “It’s never as bad as you think it’s going to be. Anticipation is the worst part of it.”
“Why couldn’t you have said that when I first arrived instead of pointing out how big the shot was going to be?” I was perturbed.
He didn’t answer me, only motioned that I should open wide and allow him to put the purple moldy material on the plastic tray into my mouth and bite down hard. While my mouth was practically glued shut he explained the many benefits of a new type of crown. When finally my mouth was free to speak I said, “I’ve heard the benefits. What are the drawbacks?”
“It’s $750 instead of $550?” He responded very matter of fact.
“Your wife (his receptionist) said it was going to be $500. Now I’m already anesthetized and I find out the price is at least $50 more and possibly $250 more? That’s not cool.” My other option to have the tooth done was by a family dentist for $1200. I didn’t think there was a decision to be made.
He bristled and continued placing tools on the little silver tray and getting me a glass of water to gargle and spit out during the procedure. He said, “You do what you want. I don’t care.”
I needed to get this tooth fixed as the crack in it was now causing heat and cold sensitivity. I didn’t want to have this shot repeated in the near future. I never thought of getting up and walking out or actually renegotiating before we continued.
As he proceeded, the environment in the three-chair office was quiet but tense. I said, “This doesn’t feel good.”
He said, “How do you think I feel?”
I’d always wanted to know how he felt. I’m an empathetic person and I always thought this white clogged, blue jeaned man with a beard and a goatee was worth trying to understand through his thick accent.
He continued on. I discovered he’d decided for me that I was going to get the cheaper crown since I’d complained. I’d been trying to renegotiate with myself that the more expensive crown was something I should have. Now, it was a moot point.
So there I was with his hands in my mouth, drilling my tooth. The shot hadn’t blocked enough of my gums for him to go as deep into them as he needed to go, so he started to stick more needles into me. After the second prick I complained and he stopped, quietly proceeding with my brutal and bloody present moment.
I didn’t know what to do so I just sat there and endured what I’d gotten myself into. I felt more vulnerable than I’d ever felt. This in the hands of a health provider I’d trusted and never felt uncomfortable around. I said, “After all these years, you know I’m very careful about money.”
He responded with, “I’m not a mind reader.” The next thirty minutes were a kind of agony I find hard to describe and distasteful to remember.
When finished I said, “Are we ok?”
“It actually went better than I thought it was going to go,” he said with remaining hostility. “I’ll see you next week to glue in the crown.”
Walking out I felt like an idiot. Why did I ask him if we were ok? We were not ok because I was not ok! For the first two nights my tongue kept tearing between two teeth. When I called to complain he said, “Just take an emery board to it and file it down.”
A week later my new crown went in without a hitch. When I handed over my credit card he said, “How much?”
Seeing my confusion he said, “We had a problem last week. I’ll give it to you for $500. My wife will have to take the loss.”
“Huh,” I didn’t get where he was going with this.
“She controls the money,” he said as he slid my card into the validation machine.
“So she gives you an allowance or something?” I said remembering previous complaints over the years how unhappy he was in his marriage.
“I never see it. I never need it. I’m always working.”
When I exclaimed what a bummer that must be he continued the same old complaint. “I want to get out, but what can I do?” We shook hands and I walked away.
I heard from a friend who has spent top money with the best dentists only to be undone by their neglectful hygienists, and also gone the route of Tijuana dental work she explained was cheap but unrefined. Neither of those options promised a better experience than what I’d had up until this latest procedure with this particular dentist.
My therapist said his behavior had been abusive. He’d taken advantage of me, verbally abused me, and left me in a compromised position. I realized I’d chosen this dentist for personal reasons but our relationship was professional. I needed to judge him according to professional standards. Feeling dis-empowered she said, “You empowered yourself by recognizing what was going on, and by deciding to protect yourself in the future by never going back.”
I don’t feel empowered. Now I have to find a new dentist.