Saturday, June 12, 2010

Not for the Faint of Heart

Thanks to fellow blogger Jerry whose recent post reawakened one of my deepest fears and dredging up the following memory.

Few things used to strike fear into the darkest depths of my soul than a trip to the dentist. I confess that I have fainted only twice in my life, both times I was in a dentist chair.

The first time was when I was a kid. I was trying to be a brave little boy; to psych myself through the ordeal I recall I was imagining myself as an astronaut. Brave and confident, the countdown commenced when the doctor walked into the room. But soon the g-forces caused me to pass out. I woke up tilted backward in the dental chair, my feet above my head.

The second experience was as a married adult. I needed a single wisdom tooth pulled. Even though I knew my insurance wouldn’t pay for it, I requested (demanded) general anesthetic which I was more than eager to spring for. As they started a drip IV in my arm, I recall the translucent window across from me began to blur then undulate, then...

The next thing I noticed was the dentist's assistant patting my hand saying, “Robert…Robert… wake up”! With a great sigh of relief I said, “Great, I’m soooo glad that’s over with”. “No, I’m afraid we haven’t even started yet… you just fainted”, She said.

So in some great leap of contradiction, during junior college, I found myself taking the college entrance examinations at the University of California Dental School. How I got there is a long story in itself involving an overbearing mother and a dearth of self identity… best saved for another post. Suffice it to say; there I was, supposedly poised on my first step to becoming a dentist. I certainly had the manual dexterity skills, I was very adept at making things. But beyond that, I had absolutely no business whatsoever even considering a career doing to people that which I was in mortal terror of having done to me.

The examinations took all day. I had brought a lunch, so after the first half of the exams I retreated to my car to eat. As I munched my bologna sandwich, I contemplated the absurdity of path I was supposedly going – I finished my sandwich then started the car and drove home without completing the remaining half of the exams. When my mother asked how my dental school application was going I told her I wasn’t accepted because they were “full”.

Now I am sure, at this point, you have questions so I will preemptively address your concerns: Yes, I do regularly go to the dentist every six months. I have adopted this behavior pattern, not from any admirable sense of self-discipline, but rather out of fear, as a survival mechanism – my rationale’ being that if I go in for regular maintenance, I will less likely be facing the specter of major “repairs” in the future.

Alas, my best efforts not withstanding, my dentist has occasionally found the need to repair one of my old fillings or build a crown. I routinely remind him that my tooth nerves are so sensitive that they can actually detect his presence when he walks into the room. I therefore request sufficient Novocain injections that cause me to limp when I walk out of the office.

My dentist really is great; I love the guy. Unfortunately he doesn’t do Nitrous Oxide so I’ve never had the experience. I know there are dentists in town who do use the gas, but I can’t bear to hurt my dentist’s feelings by taking my sissy teeth somewhere else. Really, he has never hurt me and that holds a lot of significance for me.

Still, having taken up skydiving in my mid 40’s, when asked which I would prefer, jumping out of an airplane at 10,000 feet or going to the dentist… yup, the skydive every time!

A few years back my cousin’s husband (a dentist) stayed with me while he was taking some dental school continuing education requirements at Oregon Health Sciences Dental School in Portland. One evening he and I went to the Laundromat to do our clothes. He was studying one of his textbooks for an upcoming test while I was reading a magazine. Being the curious and scientific sort that I am, as we sat together on the clothes folding table, I asked him what specifically he was studying.

“Extractions”, he said. And he proceeded to explain how sometimes during an extraction, the root breaks off and you have to chip away the jaw to dig it out. “Here, let me show you.” Then he raised the book up, turning the open page toward me so I could see the photographs accompanying the explanation.

“Interesting”, I replied… Then the room started to slowly undulate; I closed my eyes and lay back down on the table. “Really really interesting...”, I mumbled.


Elisabeth said...

Dental phobias. Tell me about them.

I went to the dentist myself today.
Like you I found it almost intolerable as a child. These days, like you, I make myself go every six months. I've had babies, the fear of the pain does not phase me as it once did, but still, I can't say I enjoy the nerve pain during simple cleaning.

I'm sure this post of yours will evoke lots of folks who empathize.

It does not surprise me that dentists allegedly suffer the highest suicide rate. No wonder - few people, if any, enjoy their visits to the dentist.

I suppose you could say the life of a dentist is similar to that of an oncologist and hangman or electrocutioner.

Great post, however much it made me squirm. Thanks.

Charlie said...

My childhood dentist was Dr. H. Lector. He did not believe in Novocaine for children because that would have stopped the screaming and taken all the fun out of it.

His drill was pre-WWI, a multi-armed contraption with multiple belts that was powered by a foot pedal. The fastest speed was equal to a 33⅓ rpm vinyl record.

Unlike you, I only go to the sadist whenever it is absolutely necessary; like clowns, dentists still scare the hell out of me.

(WV = gagin)

Charlie said...

Apparently HTML does not like the fraction one-third. Picky bastard.

Gorilla Bananas said...

These appointments go much easier if your dentist is scared of you. I hope you get to try laughing gas, it's better than alcohol for some people.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Elisabeth I didn't know about the suicide rate for dentists. I know they go into a hunk of debt to equip their offices. BTW, my cousin the dentist; he quit dentistry and now manages a nursing home.

Charlie I swear that my childhood dentist found "cavities" to fill where there were none. He drove a really nice Cadillac.

I'm picturing a dentist in a clown outfit - thanks... I won't be sleeping very well tonight!

Bananas My previous dentist did not "believe" in laughing gas; he thought it was a gateway drug to harder stuff.

You gorillas have some pretty intimidating canine teeth. Were I your dentist, I would be veeeerrrryyyyyyy careful indeed!!

Jerry said...

As you know, we suffer the same fear. Whenever I have had to search for a dentist, my first question is, "DO YOU HAVE GAS???"

GutsyWriter said...

You really told a fantastic story there.
I live in Orange County where people have beautiful teeth. My dentist works in Fashion Island, a ritzy area. I'm proud of my 52-year-old teeth. Imagine my horror when my dentist is suggesting I wear braces and a retainer until I die. I think some dentists are going overboard. My teeth are not crooked. Only perfection seems to count in OC.

Penny said...

I read somewhere that dentists find their job demoralising and when they go on holiday are more likely than other folk to sign up for mountain climbing holidays or white water rafting and the like. I've no idea if that's true or not, but it wouldn't surprise me.

Charlie, you had the same dentist I had. :D

Robert the Skeptic said...

Jerry I blew it on my last search, mistakenly thinking my current dentist uses gas. No! Too late now. He suggested I take a Zanax before I come in. That sort-a works.

Gutsy Perfection is greatly overrated. But yes, I have a cousin living in a gated community in Huntington Beach. Contrary the glint of sparkly white teeth at every turn, there is a remarkable absence of overweight people in Orange County. Must be the influence of surf-sun-sand.

Indeed, lose the braces!

Penny I mentioned in one of my comments that my cousin quit dentistry and is working as a nursing home manager. He HATED dentistry, hated having to go back to it. He loves his job now.

My dentist loves fly fishing. I'm guessing he is pretty skilled at fly tying; experienced from the hundreds of miles of dental floss he's wrangled over the years, I presume.

Murr Brewster said...

Did Charlie and I go to the same dentist? Mine also didn't believe in anesthetic. I have no idea why. All my cavities were drilled out without Novocaine. When I was an adult and my dentist asked if I wanted the Novocaine, I said no at first--then, well, why not? She pumped me full of Novocaine and started drilling. I was real glad I'd gone for it because I couldn't imagine it hurting even more. Then I went home and my face went numb. Great: pure pain followed by drooling and the inability to speak. The best of both worlds. Some people take longer, I guess.

The Idiot Speaketh said...

Thanks! As a lifelong "Dentaphobe"...this gives me even more reason to stay away from the dreaded chair of death....

Robert the Skeptic said...

Murr One of our friends still does not use Novocane. she either has no nerves in her teeth or a high tolerance for pain! It confounds me.

Idiot The worst part is the upcoming appointment day looming ever closer on the calendar.

I watched "Marathon Man" years ago without having a clue what the plot was about. Talk about nightmares!!

secret agent woman said...

I didn't go to the dentists for years until I met my ex-husband. He had done a lot of work with dental fear patients and sent me the dentist who he'd worked with. He was wonderful and although I still hate going, I'm no longer petrified.

The Mother said...

I love my dentist. He's a funny old army guy who doesn't mind drilling my teeth without anesthesia and is really good at thinking outside the box.

We laugh and trade camping site info.

Robert the Skeptic said...

SecretAgent I must confess, I am no longer "petrified". Still, it's not on my list of interesting things to do in my "free time".

Dr. Mom Drilling without anesthesia!?! I don't even know how that is possible! For me, the pain is the salient issue here.
What's the secret?

Marylinn Kelly said...

Oh, the horror. Childhood teeth drilled and filled, then years later x-rayed and revealed to have been healthy. Next, the dentist with a grandfather clock which counted down the remaining seconds of your life before they called your name. Terrors shared are partially deflated but their hold is strong. Yes, a squirmingly accurate post.

kara said...

Now I am sure, at this point, you have questions so I will preemptively address your concerns:

But you didn't. What I wanted to know is why you ate bologna sandwiches as a grown ass man. Don't you know what's in that stuff?

Robert the Skeptic said...

Marylinn I have long suspected that my childhood dentist drilled nonexistent cavaties... how would my mother know, we depended on him to tell the truth. He had financial gain to motivate him to drill where none was needed.

I have had other friends my age tell me they knew they had cavities filled that were not necessary.

Kara Let me explain it with a song:

My baloney has a first
name it's O-S-C-A-R,
my baloney has last name,
it's M-A-Y-E-R.

Oh I love to eat it every day,
that's why you'll always hear me say,
... AHHHHHH, for the love of god... PLEASE stop drilling... HELP.... AAAAAHHHHHHHHH !!!

Robert the Skeptic said...

KleinsteMotte I had to look up the term "freezing" being unfamiliar with it. There is a dentist in a nearby city that puts people totally out for routine procedures. It sounds comforting, but there is always a risk when people are placed under general anesthetic.

KleinsteMotte said...


KleinsteMotte said...

As a kid I had to go alone. These days my kids take me.

Robert the Skeptic said...

KleinsteMotte If my mother had ever sent me to the dentist alone (as in "unsupervised") I would be wearing dentures today.

Ponita in Real Life said...

In Canada, we always say 'freezing'. Funny how, only living a short drive from the border to the USA, and words have such different meanings...

I've no fear of dentists at all. I've had good and bad... my current one is great. She's a little slip of a thing but very skilled.

When I get the freezing, I also get the jitters, because it has epinephrine in it, used to constrict the blood vessels and limit bleeding. I'm sensitive to it, and it's not a pleasant sensation. But having tried the stuff without epinephrine and having the feeling come back in about 20 minutes (which is way too soon when you are having a root canal!!!!), I'll opt for the jitters any day. It is duly noted in my chart.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Pontia I am learning all this new stuff I didn't know before. I don't notice getting the jitters from epinephrine probably because I am so hyper-vigilant as to the whole procedure. But yes, certainly one would not want anesthetic wearing off after 20 minutes. I guess we should be grateful that they can make these procedures as tolerable as they do.

Mary Witzl said...

When I was a kid, they had to bribe me, beg me, talk me around it, then repeat the whole process ad nauseam. Nowadays I'm a little better, but dentists still turn me into a huge weenie.

I had two weeks' worth of root canal done in Japan before I even twigged what was going on. I'm SO GLAD I didn't know what procedure I was going to have to begin with!!! I know I saved myself some serious angst and I definitely spared my dentist a lot of headaches too.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Mary Oh great, Mary... you want to spare giving the dentist any pain??!! [chuckle]

Jamar Schaffer said...

Hmmm, it seems like that the anticipation of the gore and the pain caused your fainting spells more than anything else. That is why most people are afraid of dentists. They see the almost otherworldly tools that are supposed to go in their mouths, and they become frightened in return. They think of the pain right away, but perfection can’t be achieved without perseverance. I find it funny that you almost ended up being a dentist, but I think it was a good step for you towards understanding your own trepidation with dental visits. I do hope that you haven’t had other fainting spells since this post!