Open Wide

While National Children’s Dental Health Month wrapped up a few days ago, a recent post by a Facebook friend that mentioned her pending trip to the dentist for a cavity fill–and her extreme anxiety about it–left me mentally musing on my life to date as a dental patient.

“I detest the dentist!” responded one person to the above-mentioned post, while another, anticipating an hour of pain, exhorted, “Ask for everything they can give you.”

Hmmm. Call me warped, but for as long as I can remember, I’ve actually looked forward to my semiannual visits to the dental chair. It’s not that my experiences have been completely uncomplicated or pain-free, but ever since I was a schoolgirl receiving permission to leave class for a dental appointment, I’ve found dental check-ups oddly relaxing.

You want me to essentially recline on a chaise lounge while absorbing the warming rays of a heat lamp? Listen to soft rock or elevator-type music (effectively tuning out the drone of the drill in nearby rooms), and if I do chance to open my eyes, gaze at photos of cuddly bear cubs or peaceful nature scenes strategically situated on the ceiling? And all I have to do is open my mouth? O.K., I can manage that.

As a busy high school student, a quick walk across the street to the dentist’s office was a welcome respite from my frenetic academic, activities and work schedule–an unnegotiable period of downtime, if you will. I also welcomed the dental break when my three kids were infants, toddlers and elementary-aged tykes, because it was one of the few times I was entirely free of their innocent but unceasing demands.

Having been born in the era before sealants were de rigueur, but nevertheless possessing an incorrigible sweet tooth, I endured my share of drilled-and-filled cavities in my early years. It wasn’t fair that my older brother, who in the way of rough-and-tumble boys was often negligent of his oral hygiene until immediately before his dental appointment, had stronger, less deeply grooved teeth than I did and managed to escape each visit without a cavity while I, despite my diligent daily brushing, more often emerged with a “cavity fill” appointment slip in hand.

And I have not been totally immune to shiver-inducing dental moments. As a young professional living in the Twin Cities, it became clear my wisdom teeth needed to be removed. Without extra vacation days or family nearby, I opted to have the procedure done on a Friday afternoon–with local anesthetic, because I would have to drive myself back to my apartment, which my roommate was vacating for a weekend get-away. As I rode the elevator up to the dental office in St. Louis Park, a rumpled, balding man clutching a large McDonald’s bag hopped in, munching French fries and glancing absentmindedly at the ceiling; of course, 10 minutes later it turned out he was the oral surgeon who would remove my teeth.

The sound and sensation of the gouging and grinding as my lower wisdom teeth were wrenched from my mouth was not exactly my best TGIF experience. Armed with some codeine-laced Tylenol (then unaware I had a wicked sensitivity to the drug) for the pain, I made it to my apartment–and proceeded to spend the next 48 hours alone and horribly ill, crawling between my bedroom and the bathroom as I suffered from hallucinations, dry sockets, swollen jaws, dry heaves and a feeling, completely new to me, that I might not live until Monday morning.

But many Mondays have come and gone since then, and I retain a keen appreciation for the series of capable dentists who have kept my mouth and smile healthy and operational all these years. Not everyone in the world is so fortunate as to have regular dental care, which I believe is an underrated privilege.

While I cannot readily recall the names of the dentists I frequented during my Twin Cities decade, it is curious that my primary dentists have been Scandinavian-heavy–Dr. Anderson, Dr. Johnson and Dr. Sorensen. Their calming voices, cool, soap-scented hands and reassuring patient care couldn’t be further from the awful bedside manner demonstrated by the sadistic dentist Orin in the musical “Little Shop of Horrors.”

“I thrill when I drill a bicuspid,” croons the crooked Orin. “Say ‘aaahhh,’ now spit!”

Dental horror stories aside, with root canals, bridges and crowns perhaps yet in my future, I am grateful for the lifetime of healthy teeth and gums my dentists have helped me achieve–not to mention a few moments of enforced quiet time.

My next six-month check-up? Already on the books.