When I was a kid, I didn’t mind the dentist. I had check ups in the school dental van, and had a few fillings, which never worried me too much. I hated the antiseptic smell of the place, but they always gave out cool stickers when the appointment was over, and as a kid, that was a sure fire way to win me over.
However, as I got bigger, so did my teeth, and quite frankly, things started to get a bit hectic. I was blessed (ha!!) with a small jaw, too many teeth, and an overbite, and as more of my adult teeth came through, the more apparent it became that orthodontics would feature in my future.
“No biggie” I remember thinking. “They’ll just chuck the braces on, and I’ll end up with nice teeth. Too easy”.
Only, it wasn’t that easy.
After having two teeth extracted in the chair to make some space in that jaw of mine, followed almost immediately by three years of braces being tightened and adjusted, then copping damaged enamel during the removal of said braces, I was getting pretty fed up with people messing around with my teeth. Finding out that my wisdom teeth needed to be surgically removed afterwards (so as not destroy those nicely aligned, but slightly damaged teeth) did not fill me with glee, let me tell you.
There’s a whole lot of sensory stuff that goes on during dental work, and I was at the end of my tether. The metallic sounds, the little jolts of nerve pain, the sensation of cold air on an already fragile tooth, and having someone in such close proximity to my face so often had become too much. I’d developed an association between metallic scratching noises and mouth pain, and the anxiety had made itself at home, which of course, made everything worse.
It’s no surprise, that as an adult, I found myself feeling reluctant to return to any kind of dentist. Surely I had done my time?
After putting it off for a few years, I put on my bravest face, and made an appointment for a check up and a clean. The Boy Child was a toddler, and I wanted to fulfil my duty as a parent, by showing him that dentists weren’t scary. As I lay back in the chair, listening to the dentist make small talk with his assistant, and feeling the first of many zaps and shocks coursing through my teeth as he performed the check, and the clean, I realised I had made a mistake.
Sorry, kid. Dentists ARE scary.
As I lay there, stiff as a board, legs actually trembling and my heart racing as I fought off nausea, the dentist highlighted the extensive damage he could see on the surface of my back teeth.
“Do you grind your teeth at all?” he asked me, eyebrows slightly raised, sharp pointy dental tool lifted out of my mouth for a moment.
“Only in my sleep, I think, moreso if I’m stressed” I muttered, mouth tasting like metal, and mouthwash, and fear.
“Well, your back teeth are wrecked. If I don’t start rebuilding them as soon as possible, there’s going to be nothing to build on. Re-book for next week and we’ll make a start. And for goodness sake, don’t look so terrified. You’ve had two kids. Dental pain is nothing!”
I left, feeling ashamed, embarrassed and pretty convinced that my teeth were going to crumble into ancient ruins. I hastily paid my account, shaking my head when the receptionist asked me if I needed another appointment, and I got the hell out of there.
I didn’t go back.
In May this year, I gathered up some courage, and decided to try again, some 8 years after that last disastrous visit. I found a new dentist, in a new clinic, and made the call.
“You said it’s been a long time since you’ve seen a dentist. Do you have any anxiety about coming to the dentist?” the receptionist on the other end of the phone asked me. “And if so, how high would you rate it on a scale of zero to ten?”
“Is eleven an option? I’m not even joking”. I was nearly in tears, just making the booking.
The day of that appointment arrived, and I forced myself to walk through those doors.
I was petrified.
But then, something incredible happened.
The dentist called me into the room, and rather than directing me straight to the dental chair, instead indicated that I sit, on a stool facing him, where he sat with a clipboard in his hand.
“So, it says here on your form that you’re anxious about dentists. Can you tell me about that?”
So, I did. I told him that my teeth were pretty sensitive, and that I’d developed some sensory associations, and that even a basic dental check up usually caused me tooth pain. I explained that I hated the metal instruments, and I felt silly about it, but that it felt completely out of my control.
And you know what?
He didn’t laugh, or mock, or smirk.
Instead, he sat with me for a further 10 minutes, devising a plan, with my input, to try and mitigate my stress. After he was certain that we’d covered all bases, he asked if it would be ok if he checked over my teeth. He used plastic instruments, instead of metal, and he made a point to use warm water and less direct air pressure when attending to the clean.
When examining the worn state of my back teeth, he declared that there was definitely some work that needed doing, but in the same breath, had it noted in my file that extra time would be necessary during my appointments to ensure that the anaesthetic had time to work completely, and that I wasn’t rushed in and out.
I went home that day, relieved, and surprised to have experienced such compassionate care, and for the first time, I had experienced no pain during a clean.
Anyhow, as it happens, time got away, and it wasn’t until today that I was able to attend his clinic and start the repair work. Again, driving to the clinic, all of those fears came flooding back.
What if I just caught him on a good day last time? What if he forgets about the plastic instruments? What if they’re so busy that they forgot about the extra time??
Let me just say this: anxiety is an arsehole.
I got to that appointment, and that lovely dentist had a pre-prepared penthrox stick ready for me, with a double appointment booked, and he talked me through every single bit of that entire hour in the chair, letting me know when there was about to be a noise, and encouraging me to breathe in that magical green whistle anytime he was starting anything invasive. And you know what? I didn’t feel a thing.
I finished that appointment with a huge (half) smile on my (numb) face, because I simply could not believe that I could possibly have had such a positive, and pain free experience, particularly given the degree of damage that needed to be repaired. He sent me on my way with a mouthguard to protect those teeth, a future appointment (that I will actually keep!), a moderate dent in my bank account, and a whole shit-tonne of faith restored.
When it comes to patient-centred care, this guy has it in the bag. He’s quite frankly changed my entire outlook on dentistry.
And when it comes to love and appreciation, well, I reckon I’d marry that penthrox whistle if I could.
If you’re a scaredy cat like me, and you’re in my area, hit me up. You need to go see this guy.
Life’s too short to be worrying about teeth collapsing into ancient ruins.