Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The compassionate friend; or, "Neglect Your Teeth and They'll Go Away"

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Had a dentist appointment today for a cleaning. I never mind the dentist. Some people are petrified of dentists, but not me. My dental hygienist is fantastic -- her name's Ruth, which is a lovely name for a dental hygienist because it's Hebrew for "compassionate friend." Isn't that nice?

I've been going to Ruth for years, and I always have the same probing questions about dentistry -- but I'm always too afraid to ask. Like, if you go to the dentist and you've got a great mouth with no cavities and very little cleaning to do, how does she feel about this? Is she happy because somebody out there is taking the focus of her chosen profession seriously? Like the way firefighters admire good fire prevention? Or is she secretly upset because there's no challenge? The way some of your more petty mall cops hope there's at least a little shoplifting?

I think she likes the challenge. The first time I went to this particular office, I hadn't been to a dentist in years (no insurance) and Ruth took one look in my mouth and announced that it was going to take a while. She sweated over my open mouth for over an hour, scraping and poking and spritzing, puffing out her cheeks in exasperation from behind a surgical mask, and when she was done I remember her being exhausted but energized, as if she'd spent the day chopping wood. Every so often she likes to remind me of that day. "You're pretty good this time," she'll say. "Not like that first time you came in." And she'll smile.

Ever since then, I've never had to sit in the waiting room. I can waltz in 15 minutes late. And I often do. The receptionists know me by name as soon as I walk in, and if I'm late they just wag their finger and chuckle and say, "Oh, Dan!" Seriously. I'm like a king over there.

Another question I always have about the dentist: What would they do if I refused to open my mouth? How long would they try to cajole me into opening my mouth before giving up and demanding politely that I get the hell out? Not that I'm about to do that -- I just wonder how Ruth and the other hygienists would handle it. It's all part of my bottomless curiosity about how mentally abnormal people function in the world. Like, how many times in a hygienist's career does that happen: a grown adult sits in the chair and keeps his lips pressed shut, shaking his head over and over, going, "Mm-mmm! Mm-mmm!" Does that ever happen, or is that just in movies?

I wonder a lot about what would happen if someone went nuts in a socially inappropriate situation -- what if I gathered up snowballs outside the CVS and tried to start a friendly fight with the cashiers? Or tried to pay for stamps with an equally priced package of beef? Little things amuse me.

Ruth is pretty good about not trying to engage me in small talk. Instead, she does all the talking -- monologuing, which I suppose must be a skill you have to perfect at hygienist school. She once told me about a neighbor who was keeping a rooster for some reason. I can't recall why at the moment, but there you go.

Today, I'd started out the cleaning session by warning her that an icky spot on the inside of my lip was not a cold sore, but that I'd merely slammed a car door into my own face a few days earlier, long story -- actually not that long a story because that's pretty much the gist of it. Ruth countered, telling me was taking down a large pine bough wreath from Christmas, and she leaned toward the wreath to grab it, and she got a twig in the left eye. I said, "Gaaaaaah!" even around the mirror and fingers and sickle probe. But, she added, somehow she had no idea she'd been stuck with a pine-needle twig in the eye until later when her husband noticed she had one regular eye and one red one. That's some bad-ass pain management, and precisely the kind of story you want to hear while you're lying on your back with a lamp shining in your face and sharp metal instruments feeling around the hinge of your jaw.

The actual cleaning bit went well, with the usual mix of drool and sharp pain, and a single tear rolled down the side of my face. My favorite part of any cleaning is always when Ruth is scraping my teeth with a probe, then it suddenly stops as if caught on some kind of outcropping -- then there's an awful stone-on-stone snap, and she starts scraping again. What the hell is chipping off? It sounds enormous, and I probably don't want to know what it is.

After that, I had an x-ray taken. I was tempted to ask Ruth for a copy of it -- "Can I post that on my blog?" -- but I didn't when I realized how dorky that sounded. I figured I'd just blog about it instead. That's not dorky at all.


Nicole said...

Dental offices fascinate me too. I fell asleep in the dentist chair when I was five with my mouth open and had a dream they cut off my tongue but then sewed it back on again with an enourmous red button. No problem. Endless story possibilities at the dentist. I recommend you see "Ghost Town" if you haven't yet. Ricky Gervais plays a dentist.

New England Bites said...

I also enjoy going to the dentist, and it's probably because I take care of my teeth. The people that I've known who were afraid of the dentist were also the people that hadn't been for a cleaning and checkup in years - or were in pain from some kind of tooth issue.

I never understood the pain = avoiding the dentist equation. If I ever had tooth pain, I'd be the first one in the parking lot when they opened their doors. Who avoids getting help?

Adam Tinkoff said...

Yo Dan... you ever put together that "Ruth" rhymes with... TOOTH? Lock your doors.

Andrew W said...

Hey, if you've had x-rays or any other kind of radiology done, it's very fun to ask for copies. That's how this presentation got put together! http://www.scribd.com/doc/5552298/Paraneoplastic-limbic-encephalitis-in-Hodgkins-Lymphoma-by-Marc-Wein-HMS-III-and-Dr-Gillian-Lieberman-MD

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