Spare me from the dentist's chair

Wednesday, October 26, 2011 - 20:00

In the movies when the bad-guy torturer gets out the dentist drill to extract information from his captive, I have to look away. It reminds me too much of my youth, when the only dentist in town probably attended the same school as Nazi Germany’s Josef Mengele. I won’t mention the dentist’s name, but both my older sister and I were so traumatized by his slow drill and ineffective Novocain that we became mortally afraid of dentists for life. For many years my sister needed a sedative just to get into a dentist’s chair.

I think the Novocain was shipped from Seattle to our small town on a fishing boat that took a two-year side trip through the Aleutian Islands. Today I am fortunate to have an excellent Anchorage dentist who uses the most advanced technology. He’s come to know me well. He knows that I require enough numbing agent to make a large grizzly bear stagger. He knows to ask me about every three seconds if it hurts. He and his assistants coddle me every step of the way, and I still have great difficulties.

For me, getting through a dentistry session is like making it through a traditional Lakota Indian gauntlet. My tolerance to pain must be equivalent to that of a miniature Pekinese.

You should see my X-rays. The roots of my teeth are like that of an oak tree. On the top they almost reach my eye sockets, and on the bottom, down to my jaw. I’ve had a couple of extractions, and they were almost enough to make a grown orthodontist cry. From the look on his face, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had contemplated using a high-impact, hydraulic tool such as the Jaws of Life. Bad genes: I recall a dental exam several years ago when the dentist kept saying to his assistant, “check, check, check...” A couple of times during the exam, he poked a few of my teeth and didn’t say anything. After he was done, I asked him why he didn’t say “check” on those few teeth.

“Those were ones that didn’t have cavities,” he replied matter of factly. I blame my mom. I have her bad teeth, if that’s an inheritable trait. And when I was growing up, no one knew anything about fluouride. My parents never talked about flossing. Okay, excuses are over. I just didn’t take care of my teeth after Mengele was done with me.

My lovely wife Rebekah, on the other hand, is fastidious. She religiously goes in for teeth cleanings every six months, uses one of those electric Sonicare brushes and flosses regularly. She sets a good example that I don’t follow. In the dentist office waiting area recently, I overheard a father admonishing his young sons to take care of their teeth. “You only get one set of teeth,” he said sternly. “That’s it for life. You have to take care of them.” I don’t know if my parents ever had that discussion with me, but if they did, I wasn’t listening. It’s not like my teeth are falling out of my head. They couldn’t, with the stalactite roots I have. I can still eat steak and take healthy crunches out of rock-hard apples. I guess the important, operative question would be: “For how long?” My sister and I used to talk a lot about tracking down that dentist from long ago and having some words. But in truth, he probably can’t be blamed for his Chair of Pain. He was probably just using the best tools he had at the time.

No western frontier for me: I’ve often fantasized about living out in the wild, western frontier. But reflecting on the kind of dentistry that must have been available in those days, with pliers one of the tools of choice, there is no way I’d go back—even if I had a time machine in my garage. I hate toothaches almost as much as political campaign ads. Okay, not that much. If there is any conclusion to this ramble, it is for parents to really put their foot down when it comes to their childrens’ dental care, as well as their own. Dentistry has advanced significantly since I was a child, as well as prices for fillings and fancier stuff like crowns and bridges. But if you do have some sort of insurance, there is no excuse for not visiting the dentist regularly—even if you are like me and have to muster all the courage you have, and borrow some more from anyone who is close by. Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.

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