by Judy Gruen
“You ought to be totally comfortable now,” my dentist said, aiming a drill into tooth number 20, AKA the second bicuspid. What chutzpah. After all, at that very instant my body was arched in a back flip position in the chair, the blood was rushing to my head, three formidable dental instruments were plunged in my mouth (one of which had a sharp tip), and I was nearly blinded by the harsh light hanging mere inches above my face. Yeah, I was really cozy.
As with everything else in my body, my teeth require more servicing as time goes by. I am vigilant in getting my teeth cleaned twice a year, except for when I forget to be vigilant. That’s when I get another remedial lesson in the art of flossing from the patient dental hygienist. I vow to remain vigilant for the rest of my life, lest I begin to resemble any of the stomach-turning photographs you see on posters in some dentists’ offices. These photos feature people whose teeth have never come in contact with a toothbrush and whose four main food groups are tobacco, sugar, caramel corn and black coffee. If every dentist in the country had that poster up, we’d all run around clinging to our toothbrushes, not our phones.
I focus on breathing through the experience of having little hooks poking around my mouth, drills whirring around in some of my favorite teeth, and being warned, “You might feel a little pinch here.” Notice they never say, “Watch out, this one’s gonna hurt like a bear.” Instead, they use all these euphemisms, such as “pinch,” “tenderness,” or my favorite: “discomfort.” As if avoiding the word can avoid the sensation! I tell myself that the pain of childbirth was much worse, that as a Jew my DNA is tough stuff. But it’s still hard not to freak out each time I’m tilted back in that chair.
I used to go to a really mean dentist. He didn’t care if he hurt you or not. He sounded like Vladimir Putin, only without the warmth. I suspect that when he poked around with that tiny hook, he was actually hacking into my teeth and creating cavities that he claimed to have just “discovered.” Those add up at around $200 a pop. I always wondered: why can’t dentists just stuff little tiny cavities shut with some dental-type Spackle right then and there? What’s up with that business of drilling into the tooth and make the thing bigger?
You may wonder why I ever went to a mean dentist in the first place. Obviously his advertisements didn’t say, “As Seen on TV’s ‘America’s Meanest Dentist!’” I had naive trust in his professional abilities, and was shocked to discover he had the chair-side manner of a KGB agent. By then it was too late. They had stuffed my mouth with cotton so I couldn’t protest. Please don’t accuse me of being anti-Russian. My grandmother was Russian, and some of my best friends’ best friends are Russian. Dr. Vladimir was covered on our insurance plan, and I his hygienist was always gentle and called me “sweetheart.” I figured she evened things out. Sort of.
I told Dr. Vladimir that I needed more Novocain than the average person. He didn’t believe me. After I proved him wrong by issuing a strangled scream and kicking my legs like a 3-year-old having a tantrum, he barked, “I said DON’T MOVE, or it VILL hurt more!” He stopped drilling and waggled my cheek angrily with his hairy, Soviet-made hand while injecting me with the additional dose of Novocain. “You Americans are such babies,” he said. I wanted to cry. The man had no mercy, and had clearly not escaped from the maw of the heartless communist machine early enough. I wasn’t the only one afraid of him, either. I saw staff members cowering behind their masks when he yelled at them for breathing too loudly.
The last straw came when Dr. Vladimir dropped a tiny screw inside my hollowed out molar while fitting me for a crown. (I had cracked that tooth wide open the previous Pesach, chomping down on a hunk of shmura matza.) Instead of fishing it out, he cemented the crown over it, covering up his dastardly crime. Only after I reported chronic pain in the area after that did he tell me about the “accident,” then just shrugged and said I would have to have to live with it for the rest of my life. I called the insurance company to ask if they had any dentists on the plan who weren’t mean, but I was told those dentists no longer took insurance. I decided I would rather sell my grandmother’s diamond jewelry and pay out of pocket just to see a friendly dentist who wouldn’t drop errant bits of hardware in my molars and then seal them shut. Maybe the guy really was a KGB agent and had planted a tiny microphone in my mouth! I fired Dr. Vladimir by never making another appointment with him again. This has been very satisfying, but I do miss the hygienist who called me sweetheart.
My new dentist is everything my mean old dentist was not: professional, kind, concerned about my feeling “discomfort,” and not on any insurance plan. He’s so nice that I try to behave myself when he stuffs my mouth with scary implements, including a tweezer so big it could pry off the dome of the Al Aksa mosque; a drill, and something that looks like a glue gun on steroids. Also, he cares about my teeth, whereas to Dr. Vladimir, my teeth were just numbers, like 7, 23 or 32.
I hope that soon, the dental industrial complex will find a cost-effective, safe way to drug patients completely during any dental procedures. Drugged patients are calm patients, dentists don’t have to also act as therapists, and the assistant can just hold our mouths open with a car hood prop. I’ll be first in line when this breakthrough is announced.
You will not be surprised to learn that the crown slapped on by Dr. Vladimir is so ill-fitting and causes me so much pain that I have to have it removed and pay for a whole new crown. But the good news is that when my new, mensch of a dentist pops off the old crown with the giant tweezers, I’ll see if he can fish out that little “bonus” microphone at the same time.
(This article originally appeared in slightly different form on Aish.com.)