It Left a Bad Taste in My Mouth
I have yet to find a dentist who delivers top-notch services and a billing system that doesn’t drill holes in the bank account.
On a recent check-up, the dentist’s assistant bibs me up and abandons me. I have ample time to think about the oral invaders who mock my efforts to eradicate them. They retreat to tiny foxholes, immune to twice-daily ambushes with floss and brush and biannual trips to the dentist. The night guard, a $200 buttress, takes over when I’m asleep to keep the troops on my side strong, but this has not wiped out the dental assailants either. Crowns and root canals, like headstones in the military graveyard, mark the fallen and wounded. Their numbers amass with every check-up. Considering all the cash I’ve dumped in dentists’ laps over recent years, I still lack the radiant smile of my youth.
During childhood, Mom masterminded my dental care. She made sure my sister and I had regular check-ups and the hallowed fluoride treatments. My sister, two years older than me and now eligible for Medicare, boasts just one cavity while I shove one dental receipt after another into the income tax folder, hoping for some return on my investment.
Back in my twenties, thirties, and forties I enjoyed going to the dentist, not just because of the freebies I amassed—dental floss, cups, toothpaste, and toothbrushes—but because of the dentist’s declaration, “A perfect check-up again.” Bound by the Dentist’s Pledge to maintain my dental health, but torn by the need to pay for supplies, equipment and staff, it’s hard to imagine any sane dentist rejoicing over those stellar check-ups of my past. In retrospect, I think he knew what the future held and figured a little soft sell-now would keep me coming back.
Now that my teeth are degenerating at a rate my paycheck can’t keep up with, I have a feeling my dentist appreciates my business way more than he did in the olden days. According to
statistics, dentists earn over $150,000 with annual lows dipping to about half that amount. I’m sad to report that I’ve contributed a substantial portion of my savings to support those numbers.
I interrupted visits to my regular dentist just to try out the one where my daughter goes for braces. The modern, upscale bathroom fixtures along with the trendy interior designs in the waiting and examination rooms duped me into thinking that they offered exceptional dental care. The dentist assigned to me, astute like his predecessor, zeroed in on a multitude of problems: a few disintegrated fillings and two fractures beyond repair that required crowns. I winced, amazed that my teeth had deteriorated so much in the six months since my previous check-up.
The dentist interrupted my thoughts. “Do you grind your teeth? That’s probably why your teeth have those fractures. You might want to consider a dental guard.”
While I chewed on that, a woman from the front office translated the dentist’s findings into tangible figures. Damage assessments come to $3,500. I wasn’t surprised, just discouraged that every six months my savings washed up into the dentist’s coffers with tidal regularity.
A couple of weeks later, I settled into the dentist chair’s familiar contours, opened wide and braced myself as the needle emptied its stinging contents into the hinge of my jaw. As the anesthetic kicked in, my mind fast-forwarded.
Despite my dental vigilance, I saw myself shopping around for a prosthodontist in 20-30 years. I gulped away the thought as my new dentist sauntered in for an update on the state of my mouth.
“How’s that anesthetic feel?”
For the next hour-and-a-half, I amused myself by looking beyond and around the blinding fixture above me, scanning the burnt orange ceiling for irregularities and challenging myself between suctions to swallow, open-mouthed, without disrupting the dentist’s activities. I silently applauded my success as the floodwaters in my throat begged to be cleared once again. The effort to keep up exhausted me. So was maintaining my dignity with my mouth agape and drool leaking at the corner.
The technology at this office surpassed my former dentist’s facilities. The assistant at my old stomping ground took an impression of my real tooth before the dentist shaved off the enamel to accommodate a crown. She tamped down a pink, professional, quick-set putty over the site, waited a few minutes and then pried off the stiff mold. The lab used this as a model to shape my thousand-dollar porcelain replica.
At this new office, the dentist shoved a saliva-resistant camera into my mouth. It traced the contours of my tooth. The doctor, doubling as a tech-savvy graphic artist, touched up the computerized image that appeared on the screen to my right. He turned the likeness at odd angles to perfect the final product. From this, an in-house lab technician fabricated a temporary covering that the dental assistant glued on to protect the naked remnant of the tooth worked on that day. The computerized picture, working double duty, served as a template to create my permanent crown.
I cringed as I imagined dental technology wiping out my bank account. I’m sure the putty my former dentist used to make a cast of my tooth cost a whole lot less than what the new office used.
After two hours, my ordeal at the dentist wound down. I collected my next appointment card at the front desk, tried to articulate a farewell to the office staff with my numbed mouth, and headed out. When I got to my car, I pulled down the visor to check out my temp in the mirror. So far, so good. But I resembled a stroke victim with my right lower lip sagging and puffy.
My stomach complained about its earlier brush-off with the five-calorie Trader Joe’s Myntz I passed off as breakfast. I had to agree; my stomach was justified. I was starving. But with my mouth hung over from the dentist’s anesthetic cocktail, I couldn’t distinguish food from my inner cheek. Now I knew why the dentist advised me, “Put off eating ’til the numbness wears off.”
Although he didn’t mention it, that also applied to liquids. I stopped at a drive-through and ordered a glass of water, but it dribbled down my chin. So I parked in the lot and went in to collect a straw, to offset my imminent dehydration.
After seven hours, my mouth was still groggy. I knew that my metabolism had slowed down over the years, but I started wondering if my thyroid needed a tune-up. I decided to visit the Y to distract myself from food fantasies. At the same time, I hoped to drive the oral numbness away. Ha! After another hour-and-a-half, too famished to cook a hot meal, I consumed refrigerator leftovers, even those with a questionable residency.
With the numbness gone, I encountered a new sensation, tenderness when I chewed with the tooth the dentist worked on. I attributed that to the torment the tooth endured. That night an obstruction between that same tooth and its neighbor prevented the dental floss from passing through. I shredded the floss trying. Over the next three weeks, while waiting to have my crown installed, I experienced no letup in the pain and I gave up on flossing the area.
After a good breakfast, I showed up at the appointed time for my next visit. I voiced my complaints about the floss and the pain. The dentist tried flossing with no better luck than I had. He snapped the overworked strand several times, trying to remove what turned out to be dental cement, the overflow from the stuff they used to secure my temporary crown. The dentist resorted to drilling the obstruction out while I imagined the drill abrading the good enamel on the neighboring tooth. I’d managed to wear down my dental defenses on my own without any help from a doctor whose dental school ranking I suspected fell within the 0-1 percentile.
Next, I mentioned the jolt on the temporary during mealtimes.
“We might want to hold out before we glue your crown on permanently. If the pain doesn’t go away, you’ll probably need a root canal.”
Wait a minute. When I walked in the door three weeks ago, I felt no pain. After treatment, I was in worse shape than when I started?
I suppressed my anger and paranoia as the dentist proceeded to doctor the fracture on the other side. I assumed that he’d try extra hard to avoid losing my confidence, not to mention my business. Before he administered the numbing drug, I brought up the seven-hour delay for the last anesthetic to wear off.
“We’ll use a different formula then. You’ll regain full sensation a lot faster.”
The ceiling landscape entertained me again for another hour-and-a-half. I left the office hopeful of the predicted relief from the anesthetic and tentatively optimistic about my dental care. I willed the pain in my first tooth to subside.
The numbness lingered, committed like a Type A personality to an eight-hour workday. My pain persisted. As for tidiness, no improvement. Once the numbness subsided, my tongue grazed, presumably, a sheet of cement that spanned below the lower margin of several teeth. I managed to peel this off, a 1-inch × 1/4-inch artifact.
After assessing the quality of this dentist’s work against the fees he charged, I refused to risk another visit. I dreamed about my teeth falling out. These reruns coincided with my upcoming dental appointment. I yearned for the opportunity to open wide for a high-caliber dentist. I got referrals from friends who boasted about the dental care they received. None of these stellar professionals joined ranks with those on my insurance company’s rosters, so I settled for my old frills-free dentist. My not-quite-trustworthy standby squeezed me in a month later, willing to forgive my renegade behavior and elated, no doubt, to welcome back my mouth and the copious source of income. Of course, he evened the score by charging another $3,500 for services rendered.
Carol Glick, in keeping with her tradition of pursuing low-income professions, has launched a new career—writing. She has completed two tongue-in-cheek-memoirs, Tails Behind the Scenes: the Uncanny Parallels Between my Zoo Career and Family Life, Desert Deliverance: a Tongue-in-Cheek Memoir, and a multitude of short stories. Most of her work is accumulating dust in the computer’s hard drive, but retirement from parenting, zookeeping, and teaching the visually impaired has stripped her of an identity. That compels Carol to remake herself, this time—with any luck—as a world-acclaimed writer.