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MyView: My trip to the dentist

March 19, 2012

By Donald R. Hills, D.D.S.

I became a better dentist last week. I did what all our patients do: I went to the dentist. With almost perfect occlusion, minimal restorations and a truly great hygienist, I have needed treatment only twice in the past 25 years. I had been feeling some sensitivity, figured it was simply recession-related and like many patients procrastinated seeking care. We took radiographs in the office which revealed considerable recurrent decay and a two-day adventure began.

My friend Marc, the last dentist to treat me, recently retired and a flood of concerns opened up. Could the caries be close enough to the pulp to require endo? Could I need a crown? Could this actually cost me some money? I realized these are questions our patients must typically ask themselves all the time. With the source of the sensitivity discovered and my friend retired, my immediate concern suddenly became who should I call to treat my just diagnosed pathology? Day one was not going well so far.

I was upset for ignoring my symptoms and allowing the decay to grow, but was determined to fix the problem immediately. I thought to call the local dental society for a recommendation of a good practitioner and then remembered, "I am the dental society." Instead, I phoned a periodontist I respect and asked him who he felt would treat me well. Ten minutes later I had an appointment for the very next day. Day one was looking better.

I was a little apprehensive as my appointment time approached but was determined to be brave and stoic for my new dentist; emotions that all our patients present with daily. His office was nice, clean and like my own office not cluttered; so far so good. I pride myself concerning running on schedule and was most pleased when I was seen promptly. Certainly all patients appreciate being seen on time as I was that day. The operatory was well appointed, with an older dental EZ-chair. I used to have that chair, a very comfortable one, a classic from the early 80s, yet one I discarded many years ago. Is that a bad sign? Do our patients perceive such things? Well, the large flat screen on the wall certainly added a modern touch.

Although I presented with a chief complaint of decay on number 15, his complete exam was exactly what I would have done. We both came to the same diagnosis, which was reassuring, and he had my computer program, which in some strange way added to my general comfort level.

I decided not to tell my new best friend that I was editor of a publication, certainly not to mention that I may write about my experience, no need to place any pressure on his steady hands. After some dentist geography, who knows who and such, it was show time. I decided to keep my eyes closed throughout the procedure, like the blind man comfortable in his home, I knew all that was occurring and did not need to see the details. No topical, not so sure there, but the very slow infiltration of the Septocaine went well and I felt nothing from the shot. I introduced Septocaine into my office about 10 years ago—this was the first time I experienced its effects—boy that stuff truly works. I had forgotten what it feels like to have one’s tooth drilled upon, the high speed with its unique auditory component, the slow speed with its occipital shaking vibrations; sensations hugely different from the sound and feel we all know from the other end of the handpiece.

When it was time to rinse out, my filling complete, I thought about all my patients and how they too must feel a sense of relief and calm as each appointment is concluded. I had forgotten how truly emotional a dental visit is.

Continuing education is paramount to staying abreast in dentistry and 60 hours of courses every three years is required to maintain a license to practice dentistry in New York State. I propose receiving one hour of nonhygiene treatment every three years as an additional requirement. Sitting in the largest chair in the operatory was more constructive than all my recent continuing education and more helpful in relating to and empathizing with the patients I treat each and every day.

Dr. Hills is the editor of the Bulletin of the Nassau County Dental Society (New York). His comments, reprinted here with permission, originally appeared in the September/October 2011 issue of that publication.