At the end of another long day at the ad agency, my creative director dad and his art director gazed through the window of their office building at a beautiful sunset. "Gee," said the art director dreamily, "that would make a great ad."
So last Friday afternoon I show up at the dentist's office that I love but that I'm worried is losing its collective (and signature) perspective on things (see part one, yesterday).
My 14-year-old daughter is with me, and we have simultaneous cleaning appointments. Of course, neither of us wants to be there on a Friday afternoon. But then, we wouldn't want to be there on a Tuesday afternoon, either. And life in Chicago in March is pure shit anyway, so what's a pair of rubber hands in your mouth?
As the tech is taking my x-rays, I hear my daughter in the next chair, being asked the rote question every dentist asks kids this time of year, "So, you going anywhere for spring break?" Dutifully, my daughter answers cheerfully that she's going to Des Moines for spring break. And the dentist scrambles to ask her some question other than the obvious and unanswerable one, "Why in the mother of fuck would you go to Des Moines for spring break?"
Meanwhile, the young new dental hygienist goes to work on me. I liked the older hygienist—a partner in the dentistry—who would take one look in my coffee-stained oral man cave, give a grim snort, warn me this was going to hurt, lower her shoulder and go to work with a dental jackhammer. She didn't bother to talk to me much, because she couldn't be heard over the pounding. This video was taken of her a couple years ago, taking the tartar off my lower molars.
I like the younger hygienist, too. She is much gentler than the older one, and super friendly.
But the entire time she's shearing, scraping, poking and polishing, she's doing this one-sided, one-woman good cop/bad cop soft-shoe, about how I could do a much better job flossing, how I might benefit from a water pick, whatever that is, and how I should rinse my mouth with water after every time I have coffee. (She doesn't realize that coffee is what I rinse my mouth with.) But on the other hand, I'm not at fault for all my problems, because some of them are hereditary. And besides, some of my teeth are sort of cleaner than the other ones for some reason. "So I can't yell at you for those," she'll say. And anyway, she adds, the stuff all comes off anyway, and she enjoys cleaning teeth because it's so satisfying to see the results of your work, you know?
This routine goes on for a half hour—even after I divulge to her that the reason it's all so fucked up is that I ran out of floss four days after my last cleaning and just bought some three days before this one. "No one in dentistry can possibly imagine," I tell her grandly in what I know is a doomed effort to avoid her verbal volleying, "how infrequently people not in dentistry think about our teeth."
(A friend suggests the hygienist prattles on so because she feels uncomfortable working in silence and talking about the state of my teeth is the only thing she can think of that I might be interested in. Next time I lie back, I'm going to ask her to take me through everything you learn in dental hygiene school, day by day.)
Finally I get through the cleaning, and her basic exam.
Now, the dentist makes his entrance. Normally this dentist is my usual dentist, who as I explained yesterday, asks me about my work and my golf before gently feeling his way around the mouth he half built himself. But today, my dentist is on vacation, so the founder of the dentistry slides in for a look. "He's got tons of charisma," my daughter would later say. "And he knows it," I would grumble. And who wants charisma in a dentist?
After a conversation about my work—"you're some kind of writer, eh?"—the big guy sees something on the x-ray. I believe I've seen this same thing on the x-ray for about eight years. Some kind of rock outcropping, near the back. "I don't like that," he says. Oh fuck. He grabs some kind of crowbar and goes in aggressively and the last words I hear are, "I know you're not numbed up, but …" and he grabs hold of the rock outcropping, which is under my gum, and yanks it with all his egomania, in an attempt to tear it off my tooth.
He repeats this thrust several times, until I yelp, quietly.
"You're pissed at me now, aren't you?" he says with a laugh. Yes, Doc. I'm pissed at you—but not as pissed as I'll become over the next two nights as the pointless injury you caused me increases in swelling. And I'm going to tell my dentist next time I'm in, that he ought to have a talk with you what a vulnerable position a dental patient finds himself in.
He suggests I should have the rock outcropping looked at and shorn off next time I'm in. Yeah whatever, dude.
On the way out, I make an appointment for another cleaning in six months (because they don't offer me the option of six years). As I'm turning to leave on a dead run, the administrative person tells me I owe the dentist $188, for a procedure in 2016 that insurance didn't cover? Why didn't wasn't I told this before? Probably because they didn't notice it next to the $1,700 that I'm paying down f0r Scout's orthodontia? I ask her how she would react in the same situation. She says she would be angry too. She admits she doesn't really know the story with the billing and tells me someone who does will call me Saturday. I say I won't be available for a call from the dentist's billing people on Saturday. She suggests I call them during the week to get it all straightened out.
Instead, I spend my copious free time writing this reminder to my dentists—the ones who fixed my mouth and to whom I take my daughter and to whom I have recommended a number of friends—that they must make a renewed effort to meet their patients where they live, which is in the big, busy, sugar-filled, coffee-fueled, cash-strapped, mostly pain-free world outside the four walls of their 13-chair dentistry.
Acknowledge us as the good people we are, not bad dental patients we are to you.
And remember that the world is not about dentistry, the world is about people.