StromI knew right away that I was in trouble when he didn’t get my killer joke. Walking into my dentist’s office on the morning I was to get my tooth extracted, I chimed in an upbeat tone, “Why, good morning Dr. Mengala!” Don’t ask me why I said something this stupid; I was nervous and it just spilled out of my mouth. Fortunately, my dentist, a young man probably still in his 20s, hadn’t heard of the infamous Nazi doctor or seen the movie “Marathon Man.” But at that moment I realized that my comedic charm was not going to win me a trip to the Kennedy Center. And it was also at that moment that I saw myself swirling into an abyss of pain.

The device that my dentist—who as indicated by the certificate on his wall received his license to practice dentistry and oral surgery in 2003—used to pull my tooth looked like the same pliers that Steve Martin uses on Bill Murray in the movie, “Little Shop of Horrors.” I was counseled by my dentist on the fact that my tooth was going to be exceptionally hard to extract for three reasons: 1) part of the tooth had broken off below the gum, making it difficult to grasp; 2) the x-rays showed that the tooth’s roots curled around the adjacent back tooth and terminated somewhere in the vicinity of my hippocampus; and 3) I was determined to flop around on my dentist’s chair like a carp on a riverbank.

Before I go any further, I feel compelled to say that my dentist, despite his youth, is extremely skilled at what he does. I’m very happy with his services, and this editorial is in no way meant to demean his professionalism. However, being involved in the healthcare industry, I would liken my situation to former waiters and waitresses who I know: no matter how good the restaurant, they will have an uncontrollable urge to critique the server. “Bedside manner” is particularly important for dentists and hearing care professionals because they are on the battlefront between the patient’s raw emotions and healthcare needs. For example, as a child, I frequently visited an old country dentist who I’m convinced served as the model for the pitchfork-holding farmer in Whistler’s American Gothic. He never used novocaine and relied on a drill that boasted top-RPM speeds on par with my Close-and-Play record player. Thus, I have some deep-rooted (pun intended) dental issues, and when seated in a dentist’s chair, I tend to get so pasty and anxious that I make Barney Fife look like Indiana Jones.

The dentists I currently see are partners who run two offices, and they alternate between these offices for increased convenience to their patients. However, as I learned during the course of the tooth removal, some of the tools in the other office would have been helpful during the extraction process. I suspect my dentist mentioned this fact to help explain to both me and his dental assistant why the procedure was taking so long.

Suffice to say, the extraction did not go expeditiously. The good thing is that I was counseled to expect some “discomfort” (in non-medical jargon, this means “searing pain”). Recognizing that I am not the ideal patient, I bring my ordeal to readers’ attention only for two reasons. First, if you are exceptionally young and/or have only recently obtained your license to practice, you may wish to exhibit your diploma/certificate in a less conspicuous place than in the room where the patient might experience fear or discomfort (eg, impression-taking). Second, if you lack equipment that might be helpful, don’t mention it to the patient. Tell your partner/boss about it, or save money for it, or refer the patient elsewhere, but otherwise keep it to yourself because your patient needs to have supreme confidence in you and the procedure(s) they’re currently undergoing. In the end, the extraction came out fine. But, like the tooth, it was hard to get these two facts out of my head while flopping about in the chair.

Karl Strom