Open Wide

by Cindy Phillips posted Oct 6, 2011

I am the proud mother of a dental hygienist. Getting my teeth cleaned is an entirely new experience now. My pride starts to swell the minute I step into the dentist’s office. I love seeing my daughter in her colorful scrubs as she maneuvers around her “office.” Her certificate hangs on the wall, a testament to the hard work, endless hours of studying and monumental effort she put into the accomplishment. She has come into her own.

Dentistry has come a long way in the past fifty years. I am amazed at the gadgets and equipment. I remember when the most complicated piece of equipment was the spittoon sink. Looking back, that was certainly not environmentally-friendly with hundreds of gallons of water wasted for a dozen spits. Some offices today sport televisions and headphones for your viewing and listening pleasure while your mouth is probed. Going to the dentist is no longer the fearful adventure it used to be, although getting a root canal is still the benchmark for life’s most unappealing undertaking. I myself still use the phrase, “that sounds like as much fun as having a root canal.”

When I was a kid, our dentist was Dr. Donald Stern. He was a short, stout man wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a white doctor’s coat. His office smelled like cloves. My mother determined he was a good dentist because his children were in the same boarding school as Johnny Carson’s sons. I never quite understood that reasoning, but back then you trusted that your parents knew best. Of course once I became a parent myself, I knew the truth. Sometimes we haven’t a clue.

My mother took me to see Dr. Stern once a year, unless I developed a toothache prior to the annual visit. I’m not sure if it was the lack of fluoride in the drinking water, but I had my share of cavities as a child. One memory is very vivid to me about my childhood dental experiences – Dr. Stern did not believe in Novocain. He would always say it was just a small cavity and it would take less time to drill it out than it would for the Novocain to take effect. The expression on his face never changed as he imparted these words of wisdom to my mother. He always had a, well, a stern look on his face. Perhaps that is how he got his name.

As a child, I knew no different. I had no idea that a dentist could numb the area before he attacked it with a sharp implement that caused a pain that had me literally shoot up out of the chair. I distinctly remember the sound of the little whimper that would come out of my throat, though I tried to stifle it as best I could. My mother and Dr. Stern probably never heard it. It was drowned out by the God-awful sound of that drill, whirring away at what seemed like hours. And I recall the sight and smell of the small plume of smoke that would rise from my mouth.

When I became an adult and moved away from home, I had to find new dentists. First was Dr. Gene Wilder in Manhattan. That wasn’t really his name, but the resemblance was uncanny along with the sense of humor. Dr. Gene introduced me to nitrous oxide, more commonly known as laughing gas. For some reason, he enjoyed turning up the flow of the tank much higher than was necessary. He thought it was humorous to get you high as a kite. And while you were incapacitated, he would draw pictures on your cheeks that you didn’t discover until you got home and caught your reflection in a mirror. I once left his office and walked ten blocks in the wrong direction. That was a hairy subway ride back to Queens.

When I moved to South Carolina in 1979, I found Dr. Paul Rundberg. He remained my dentist for 25 years until I moved to Vermont. He was a no-nonsense, get the job done kinda doc who never appeared to jump on the high-tech bandwagon. I visited his office twice a year for cleaning, a checkup and a five-minute conversation on life and how our kids were doing. He made dental visits painless in his own way, though my lack of serious issues during this time period probably had something to do with it.

When I came to Vermont I had to face the task of finding new doctors, dentists and someone to cut my hair. Living in a small town makes it easy to get the lowdown on anyone and everyone. Just stop in at the Water Wheel and ask what you need to know. Ten people will be quick to tell you who you want to consider and who to avoid. My choice was Dr. D’Auria in Rutland based on plenty of good comments, all which proved to be true. In addition to seeing him twice a year for checkups, we would run into each other at restaurants, the supermarket and his niece’s wedding which took place at the Summit Lodge. You have to love small-town living.

And now my dental professional is my little girl. We rejoiced when she got her first tooth and we spent years as her personal tooth fairy, sneaking those dollar bills under her pillow. Talk about inflation, my tooth fairy was only good for a quarter. And now she dons her mask, revs up her Cavitron and meticulously scales, cleans and polishes my teeth like a pro. Luckily neither she nor the dentist discovered any cavities. But if I get one, I sure hope Dr. Powell believes in using Novocain.

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