Reflections from the Dentist’s Chair

Ever since I broke my tooth in January, 2019, I have been in more dentist’s and oral surgeon’s offices than ever. In the past, the American Dental Association suggests twice a year cleanings and checkups. I counted at least 6 visits from the first consultation on Jan 12, 2019 and until my dentist put my new permanent crown in February 2020. That was a good thing because next month was March 2020. In case your memory failed, that was the first month all the stay-at-home orders came into effect.

This month, I went back to the dentist to have the dental crown adjusted because it wasn’t seated right. Long story short, I got the adjusted crown implanted today. That procedure was “short” – an hour plus.

That was just the last year and half. I had braces in high school and college, had my wisdom teeth removed in 2002, and 3, yes, 3 root canals. I’m not going to list everything. That would be too much and too boring.

While sitting in the chair not so long ago, I began to think about why people hate or fear the dentist so much. It’s not the atmosphere. In every dentist and oral surgeon’s office, it is the same. First, the area is bright – natural light as much as possible, especially in Southern California. And because dentists have to operate in the dark cavity called your mouth, they need to see clearly.

Then there is the music. They always stream “soft” music – nothing too jarring. At my current dentist’s place, it is modern pop music – some John Legend or Ed Sheeran. At my old dentist’s place, he plays the classical music station (KUSC) with Mozart, Bach, or Stravinsky (or the bold). Two doors down is a music/ piano studio which competes for air space since they use the same ventilation / HVAC system.

Third, even before COVID-19, the offices are sterile. The receptionists and office managers might try to make it stylish, like pictures of Ansel Adams’s Yosemite or at my oral surgeon, a modern black marble sink shaped as a free standing bowl. Little things like that made the office interesting, but it is still sterile.

If it is not the natural light, or the relaxing music, or how clean it is, what then?

I suspect it is the fear of the unknown, especially the unknown tools and procedures.

Let’s contrast this with going to CostCo Tire Shop to get new tires. For example, I got a flat and replaced it with the spare but I need to make an appointment to get new tires. I make an appointment online, identify which tires I need, and click “Submit.” At CostCo, I can probably watch from the parking lot the techs replacing my tires. Not that I have to watch, because I could be shopping inside, or going across the plaza to get a drink. There is so much visibility and transparency and depending on your knowledge of tools, you could probably identify all of them.

But can you say the same at the dentist?

Even if you knew all the tools, you still can’t watch. You are reclining, almost in a supine position. There is a bright light shining above you. The dentist says “Open wide!” and starts shoving tools down your mouth. There is always a small mirror, followed by a suction tube, and the rest are scary.

I am sure the dentists explained the procedure to you at some point. They have to; that’s the law because it goes to “Informed Consent”. Even then, because you don’t know or have heard of half the things they can do, you just nod. Later, I did research how implants work and was reassured that the process was fine. However, even knowing how the procedure works, it does nothing to prepare you for the pain that follows.

Besides fear of the unknown, there is the fear of future pain. I don’t know about you, but that is probably a huge part.

In July 2019, I figured out how to deal with the future pain: create a personal pain management strategy. Because I could not eat solid foods for a while, I loaded up on ice cream, yogurt, and protein shakes. The icy cool numbs the dull pain and plus, I got another excuse to eat ice cream as a main course. Additionally, I made sure I had a good stock of OTC and prescription painkillers. Then I enacted the plan. Knowing what to do in advance makes the next procedure easier to deal with.

What have I learned in the end? One, just take it one moment at a time. Two, it takes time to heal. Do not rush but execute your strategy – what you eat, where you rest, and who you interact with. Three, demystify; if you want to watch the videos, that’s up to you, but at least read the brochures and infographics. Four, if you are a Christian, pray.

My favorite Christian ska band – the OC Supertones, wrote a song called “Like no one else” from their hit album Supertones Strike Back. In this song, they describe how Jesus cares for all our needs, including being in the dentist’s chair. That’s a very comforting thought.

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