The Chair

Chaos in Print

It must be at least 10 years since I’ve been to the dentist. What can I say? My teeth don’t hurt, I brush regularly, and I just had a happy little denial going. But then, I got this job to go to Japan. My new company stresses that they don’t have anything in the way of a dental plan, so they recommend that you get your teeth checked out before you go. Now in my final weeks at Extra Foods, I figured that now was as good a time as any to go, mainly because my medical benefits cover the cost of a check-up and cleaning. An enquiry to my childhood dentist about rates quickly turned into setting an appointment, and before I knew it, I was off to the dentist.

The weeks soon passed, and before I knew it the morning I had been dreading had come. I usually just brush my teeth before I go to bed, but that morning I brushed my teeth right after breakfast. As I brushed, I had a brief flashback to a line from a sitcom. “For the same reason why you brush your teeth before going to the dentist,” said our heroine, when her boyfriend asked why she thought it was so important she douche before going to her gynecologist. I was scared at what the dentist might find in there. I hadn’t been in 10 years, and only regularly brushing for 6 of those years. I was expecting the worst, and brushing frantically in the hopes that 10 years of poor upkeep would be brushed away. With my mouth as clean as it could be, my wallet in my pocket, and a dental insurance claim form at hand, I was headed into Spruce Grove.

This is how long it’s been since I was last at the dentist: in the 10 years that I had last been, the dental clinic had moved to the other end of the mall. They asked that I show up about 20 minutes early so my medical history could be updated. I arrived and they asked exactly how long it had been since my last visit. I just sighed and said, “Well, I’m not exactly sure, but I do know you were still at the other end of the mall.” The receptionist’s eyes grew wide, and she gave me the forms to fill out. They decided to just start me anew. I sat down and began filling out the forms. “When was your last visit?” 1992. “Do you have any of the following allergies?” No no no. “Are you currently being treated for any mental illness?” The voices in my head say no. I returned the forms to the receptionist, and soon I was escorted to the dentist chair by a tech with a thick European accent.

We walked past several rows of bays, each one containing a dentist chair right in the middle, and trays of assorted tools surrounding it. It was looking more like a mechanic’s garage than a medical center. I smiled an ironic smile as I was escorted through this first, and for a while only, bastion of for-profit healthcare in Alberta. Soon, we arrived at my surgical bay, and I was told to take a seat.

First up, the tech was going to take some X-rays. She gave me the lead apron, told me to take off my glasses, and escorted me across the hall to a machine. This was the big one that goes completely around your head, taking the panoramic view of everything inside your mouth. My head was placed in the vice, and I bit down on the mouthpiece. The tech left the room to activate the machine, and I was left there, all alone, wondering if the lead apron would be thick enough. The machine started to whir and click. I watched it as it passed around my head. My mind briefly wandered back to my physics training, trying to remember exactly how lethal the X-ray spectrum is. But soon, the X-ray was done, and I was taken back to the surgical bay. The tech told me sit down, and she went to develop the pictures. I sat there, my gaze wandering about the office. My nerves were starting to settle a bit. The tech soon came back in. It was time for the close-ups. These were the X-rays I remembered from my childhood, where a cardboard thing had to be shoved into your mouth, and an X-ray camera pressed right against your cheek. First the left. Cardboard thing shoved into place. Lead apron put back on. Tech leaves the room. Camera clicks. Tech comes back in. Now, the right. Cardboard thing taken out of mouth, new one shoved in on right side. That one makes me gag slightly. Tech leaves room. Camera clicks. Tech comes back. Cardboard thing taken out. X-rays done. The tech left the room, and I sat there, alone.

After a few minutes, the tech came in with the dentist. I didn’t catch his name. He was an Asian fellow, with a thick Asian accent. If I’m going to be teaching English in Japan, I’d better get used to thick Asian accents. I’m reminded of an Australian exchange student in high school. About halfway through the school year, she said, “I’ve really gotten used to hearing Canadian accents. I was talking to my parents on the phone last night, and now they’re the ones with the funny accents.” But I digress. It was time to get to some old school dental work. The dentist hit the buttons, and the chair reclined. He asked me to open wide, and he stuck in all his sharp, pointy instruments. I tried to relax. The doctor made some smalltalk, mostly clarifying questions on my medical history questionnaire. When he was done poking around, he took a look at the X-rays and consulted with the tech. It was time to deliver the prognosis. This is what not going to the dentist in 10 years gets you:

– huge tartar build-up

– some mild gingivitis

– three cavities

– three impacted wisdom teeth

The dentist began presenting the solutions to me. The tartar would be gotten rid of in the cleaning. That, naturally, led to the lecture on how brushing every night before bed isn’t good enough, and that I should brush after every meal and brush and floss before bed. The gingivitis has to heal on its own, but rinsing with a warm glass of saltwater every couple of days will help.

That brought us to the cavities. Now, we all know that cavities require fillings, and the doctor presented my choices. I could get the good old fashioned metal kind, or the newer, more modern kind, which he simply called “white.” He gave the sales pitch for each one. He pointed out that while the metal ones are cheaper and last longer, he also mentioned that they aren’t as cosmetically pleasing, and that some people worry about the mercury content of them, even though Health Canada has constantly given them their stamp of approval. The white ones, while looking pretty and containing no mercury, are more expensive and don’t last as long. I thought about my options. Since all my cavities were on back molars, I seriously doubt that people will be looking back there. Cosmetic appearance was not important. I could take the cheap ones that last long and are constantly being inspected by the government to make sure that they are OK, or I could take the pretty ones that cost more and don’t last as long. I opted for the metal ones. The dentist said that on my way out, I was to talk to the receptionist about setting up appointments for the cleaning and the fillings. I thought I had scheduled a cleaning for that day, but oh well.

Now, the final problem. My wisdom teeth. I didn’t even know I had them. The doctor said that removing them would require major oral surgery, and he’d have to refer me to a specialist. I’d probably have to be knocked out for it. Of course, he said, they don’t present a problem yet, but the longer I leave them, the more painful it will be to remove them. I decided to leave them for now. Will it be a decision I regret a year from now in Japan? I hope not. Major stuff like this is only partially covered by the dental plan, and if I’m going to a specialist, there’s a real chance the appointment will be after I leave Extra Foods. I can’t afford surgery if I’m moving overseas.

And now, the doctor raised just one final concern. In the X-rays, my top back teeth on the right side didn’t photograph, leaving only a dark spot on the X-ray. He wanted to take one final close-up, just to be sure everything was OK back there. I was game. So, the dentist left, and the tech went back to work. The tech came over with another of those cardboard things to shove in my mouth, but this time, it was on a pair of tongs. It had to go far back. The first time the tech stuck it in, I gagged. The tech said it was OK. We tried again. I gagged again. We tired again. I gagged again. The tech reclined the chair all the way. I gagged. She brought the chair all the way up and had me lean forward. I gagged. “Try imagining yourself far away,” she recommended. Vomit almost came up with that one. The tech was getting frustrated. I was getting embarrassed. Finally, she went to get the doctor for advice. The doctor came and tried. I gagged. The doctor carefully maneuvered the cardboard thing into position. I wasn’t gagging. The doctor and tech left the room to take the X-ray, and as they left I could hear the tech ask, “Are you sure it’ll work like that?” My confidence dropped a level. The X-ray camera clicked. The tech came back in and sent me up to the reception area, where I could schedule my cleaning and fillings, and the doctor would present the results of the X-ray.

I headed out to the reception area, where the receptionist immediately stopped me. “We just had a cancellation for a cleaning. We can do it now,” she said. “Can you wait 10 minutes?” I said sure. A half-an-hour later, the hygienist was ready for me.

I was taken back down the row of surgical bays to the hygienist’s bay. This woman had a remarkably thick Canadian accent. She sat me down, and again started making the smalltalk about my last cleaning and all that, and asked a few questions about last night’s Oilers game. I remarked that I wasn’t a hockey fan. She seemed disappointed. She hit a few buttons and reclined the chair, and began poking around with her metal instruments.

She whipped out the scraper and began scraping away the tartar. As I laid there with my mouth open, things slowly drying out, I soon felt a familiar taste on my tongue. “Yup, I’m getting a little blood because of the gingivitis,” she said. She got out that little water gun and vacuum as she rinsed things out. She stuck in the vacuum and close my mouth, and there was that very unpleasant feeling of having all the breath sucked out of your mouth (and most of your throat) before the vacuum is clogged with your tongue. When that was done, she went back to the scraping.

Having your teeth scraped clean is a very unpleasant sound. I needed something, anything, to get my mind off of that sound. My mind was cast back to a story I read about Jim Carry filming The Grinch. The pain of his make-up was so unbearable that a former CIA agent was brought in to teach him pain-tolerance techniques that agents are taught to defend themselves from torture. One of the techniques was pinching yourself, and focusing on only the pain of the pinch. Modifying that technique for my situation, I dug my fingernails into my thigh. I didn’t notice the sound much after that. Rinse. Vacuum. Tongue stuck in vacuum.

Now, the scraping of the top teeth began. The fingernails in thighs trick wasn’t working anymore. Suddenly, my thoughts turned to a third person perspective as a way of distancing myself from the situation. Mark sat in that chair, wondering how much longer things were going to take. The procedure was painless, but the constant “scritch scritch scritch” was driving Mark crazy. Mark’s stomach rumbled. All he had for breakfast was two pieces of toast. He would love to go to Wendy’s when this was done, but if his memory served him, he would have to wait about another half-an-hour after a cleaning before he could eat. Rinse. Vacuum. Tongue stuck in vacuum.

With the scritching done, I leapt back into my brain, and it was time to go at it with the turbo-charged toothbrush. I chose the mint flavored toothpaste, and soon that whirring little device was in my mouth. This was a lot more pleasant, with the toothbrush’s whizzing producing a sort of white noise. That was done a lot sooner than the scraping. Rinse. Vacuum. Tongue stuck in vacuum.

Now, the hygienist declared, it was time for the finishing fluoride treatment. She was impressed when I chose the banana split flavor. As she bent over to get the necessary equipment, I couldn’t help but notice that her butt was just half a foot from my face. Yes, I checked out my dental hygienist! I throw myself on the mercy of all my feminist friends. It wasn’t long, though, before my mouth was filled with a banana flavored fluoride foam, and I was left to dwell on my crime against women.

After five minutes in solitary, the hygienist came in and it was time to finish up. Again, I got the lecture on brushing after every meal, flossing, and rinsing with the saltwater. She gave me a complimentary toothbrush, a roll of floss, and sent me on my way. It was time to pay up and schedule the fillings.

I spoke with the receptionist, and once the appointments were made to get my fillings (in two weeks time, when I’m still working for Extra Foods and fillings are still covered under the health plan), the subject then turned to my next cleaning.

The receptionist said, “Now, most of the patients for that hygienist have to be pre-booked. You should have your teeth cleaned every six months, so that means you should be back here in October. Is there a day in October that’s good for you?”

I shared my future plans. “Actually, I’m going to be out of the country in October.”

“Oh, well then, we’ll schedule for as soon as you get back. When will you be back in Canada?”


“Oh.” I could hear the receptionist’s disappointment at having lost the sale. “We won’t bother with that, then.” She was still getting my money, though, and it was time to pay up.

I had never made a claim on the health plan before, so I wasn’t sure how to do this. When I made the appointment, they explained to me that I pay up front, they’ll fill out the claim forms and send them off, and I’ll get my reimbursement check in the mail. So, I whipped out my Visa and paid for my trip to the dentist. Cost of a check-up and cleaning after 10 years? $320. I presented my claim form, but they told me that it was not needed. They did ask for my employee health benefits card, though. The receptionist took a look at it, entered some information into the computer, and said, “There! It’s all been e-mailed to your health insurance carrier.” She ran off my copy of the claim form, stapled it to my credit card receipt, handed me the package, and sent me on my way. But I did have one last question. I pointed to my copy of the claim form and asked, “How come it says, ‘Error in claim. Claim cannot be processed.’ across the top of the form?” The receptionist was taken aback. She took a look at my forms, then took another look at her computer. “Is this your first claim?” she asked. I nodded. “Oh! The first one has to be done in writing!” She clicked her mouse, the complete claim form came off of her printer, she had me sign it and said, “We’ll stick this with our outgoing mail this evening.” And she sent me on my way.

Oh, I forgot to mention. While my claim was being entered into the computer, the doctor came out and told me the results of the “dark spot” X-ray. It was kind of fuzzy, but from what he could make out, it looked OK. I accepted this. The dark spot felt OK, too.

I wandered out into the mall, somewhat depressed. Cavities! I needed fillings! That is the ultimate mark of shame. “He can’t even take care of his teeth.” That, and I was started to be filled with worry. What if my claim still couldn’t be processed? What if I have to pay for all this out of my own pocket? What if everything in the dark spot wasn’t OK? How problematic will those wisdom teeth be later in life? My mind was flooded with all new kinds of worries. Ignorance truly is bliss.

To get my mind off of this, I went to the Superstore across the street to do some browsing, and lo and behold, what did I find on the shelves? Episode II action figures! Spider-Man: The Movie action figures! In the grand tradition of getting a treat for being a good boy at the dentist, I had to get Spidey, Obi-Wan, and the incredibly hot Amidala figure. I grabbed them off of the shelves and headed to the checkout. Sadly, though, I ran into a problem that I myself constantly have. The Episode II figures weren’t in the computer yet, so the cashier had to call to get a code for them. I sat and waited for a few minutes. Finally, the cashier got his code and entered it in. Now, Superstore and Extra Foods are the same company. The codes and abbreviations are all the same. When the cashier entered that code, I instantly recognized the abbreviation, not for Episode II action figures, but for Transformers mini-cars. Did I mention that Transformers mini-cars were half the price of Episode II figures? So, I kept my mouth shut, and walked out of the store with two Episode II figures for the price of one. My day was looking up.

It had been an hour and a half since I left the dentist’s office, so it was safe to have some lunch. I headed over to Wendy’s and got myself a Big Bacon Classic. I felt some trepidation before eating. This was the cleanest my teeth had been in 10 years, and now I was getting ready to mess them up again. Would the possibility of more cavities be worth a full belly? Hell, yes. Even hygiene must give way to survival. I took a deep breath, and began eating my Big Bacon Classic. There went my teeth.

As I was leaving Wendy’s, I couldn’t help but think of the current state of dental care. How come they constantly harp on us about keeping our teeth clean when we are kids, but all that kind of fades away when we hit our teen years? Maybe it’s like smoking. The dental industry wants to get us hooked when we’re young. Hmm. Nicotine-laced toothpaste. Would that get people brushing more? Would it have gotten me brushing more? What’s dental science brought us in Star Trek‘s time? You never see Captain Picard complaining of a toothache, or Captain Janeway brushing after every meal. Maybe replicated food is designed not to cause tooth decay. Maybe there’s a monthly injection they can get that makes teeth super-resistant to plaque build-up.

It’s been a full 12 hours since my visit to the dentist, and my teeth still feel kind of funny. Maybe the deep cleaning rubbed them raw. Maybe it’s just my constant focus on them has made them super-sensitive. The same thing would happen in high school chemistry class, whenever we’d work with acids. My hands would tingle for hours afterwards, with the fear that I spilled something on them. That’s the way my teeth are right now. No pain, just a tingle. Especially in that dark spot. A week ago, my teeth didn’t hurt, I brushed regularly, and I had a happy little denial going. Now, my teeth tingle, I find out I’m not brushing regularly enough, and the denial is shattered. Teeth are more trouble than they’re worth. I think I know why I haven’t been to the dentist in 10 years.

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