I’m sure other people have spent entire days at the dentist, which maybe makes my particular day unremarkable, but paying ten dollars for the privilege is really something else.
They have this dental clinic at the local community college, in which students in dental hygiene get to practice on the public, for which the public receives a $10 dental exam and a cleaning, which honestly you can’t beat. A week before my exam, a girl named Shayla with a teeny tiny voice called me and asked about a hundred questions that I happily answered because she was so earnest and sweet. She called a couple more times with questions about seemingly unimportant things (what vitamins I took), but this was all done in the interest of time.
Except that on the day of the exam, as the door to the waiting room kept opening with a new young shiny-faced dental hygiene student calling out someone’s name, I was the last one called. But Shayla did finally show up, and she led me into the clinic, which looked exactly like a regular office with fluorescent lighting and dozens of cubicles, except that in each cubicle next to the desk and in place of, I don’t know, a file cabinet or wastebasket or something, there was a dentist’s chair. It really was a fantastic looking place.
It’s probably obvious to point out that during the visit Shayla sat at her tiny desk and I sat in the dentist’s chair. (An aside: sometime in the late 70s my dad, whose interest in objects left out on New York City streets is legendary, found a gynecologist’s chair and brought it home. I thought it was a dentist’s chair and was never disabused of this notion. I did notice, however, that adults always chuckled at my referring to it as a dentist’s chair and also that it was a total hit at parties. Years later I asked my dad, Whatever happened to that dentist’s chair you picked up from the street? He responded, laughing, Dentist’s chair? That was a gynecologist’s chair! I felt glad that I hadn’t actually known this.)
Anyway. I noticed immediately a little wrapped package on the small table next to my chair, which turned out to be Shayla’s instruments. Shayla mentioned that the instruments were wrapped like that to show they were sterile. They were sterilized in…an autoclave? I asked, because now that I’m writing chapter tests for a medical textbook I have picked up all kinds of information like that. (Ask me about skin diseases!) Yes, she said, completely unimpressed, looking through her instruments. There were tons of them.
Say, did you know that those little hook things are used to measure your teeth? Now wait, I know it sounds like I got tricked, the way that dentists tell kids they’re just going to count their teeth, but really those little instruments have a line on them and they put them up to your teeth to see how far the gum has receded. All this time I thought they used them to pick at your teeth! They are called probes. Did you know that? Does anyone tell us these things except dental hygiene students who are being asked a million nonstop questions that they are, for some reason, happy to answer?
The picking or measuring or whatever went on and on. Shayla had to write down something for every single tooth. There was apparently a problem with number 19. An instructor came over and they had a little talk about my tooth number 19. Turns out I brush my teeth too hard! I have ruined one of my teeth, fool that I am. Sheesh. Also Shayla wasn’t sure but she also thought that maybe I had some bone loss. What is that exactly? I asked, instantly terrified. She explained it to me in precise details that I can no longer remember, but ultimately it came down to: we won’t really know until we do an x-ray. And then I was immediately scheduled for an afternoon x-ray and Shayla explained all about how if there was bone loss then I might actually become her case study and then I’d have to come back a few more times. She then explained that she needed a case study to graduate and asked if I would mind being her case study if it turned out I had bone loss. Do you want me to be your case study? I asked. Oh, I would love it! she said, completely thrilled, and so I agreed, despite realizing that a part of her wanted something terrible to show up in the x-rays.
At some point I exclaimed, My teeth are a mess! I’m the worst patient you’ve ever seen. Oh no, she said. There was this woman, she was like 25, and she already had mobility. (Mobility means loose teeth.) Really? I said, not bothering to disguise my excitement. Yeah, she said. She had celiac disease and I guess her diet was really bad for her teeth. Her gums would not stop bleeding. She never came back again, she added wistfully. Yeah, but, okay, I said, tell me about someone that had bad teeth that didn’t have celiac disease. Oh there was this guy, she began. He never brushed his teeth….
At this point two hours had gone by.
What with all the picking and numbering of teeth and scheduling the afternoon x-rays there hadn’t even been time for a cleaning and so I had to schedule one for the following week, even though Shayla explained again (a little too excitedly) that if I were her case study, it would mean coming back a few more times after that. Fine. Now it was time to leave and come back to the afternoon clinic.
[Insert scene in which I spend the next hour and a half at Target happily trying on boots and sampling dozens of moisturizers.]
Back at the dental clinic, for my x-rays, I had another student, Caitlin, who was less ridiculously wholesome (when I’d asked Shayla if she liked that crap radio station they had playing in the office, she mentioned that once a song had come on that almost had a swear word in it and she was amazed because elderly people come in there!) and also less of a doomsayer (Caitlin: “I’m not a doctor, so I can’t really make a diagnosis, but your teeth look fine!”). I went into the x-ray cubicle and got into the dentist’s chair. They were just trying out the new digital x-ray machine in the office and though it was flattering to hear the supervising dentist say constantly, Wow, that’s gorgeous! about pictures of my teeth, it also took over an hour to get them all done. Caitlin had to set up each shot and then get each picture approved by her instructor, an actual dentist. Digital x-rays still involve that terrible contraption that they put in your mouth, but the results pop up seconds later on the computer screen in front of you, which is a little bit thrilling. The shots of my teeth were discussed and admired for their density.
After all of that, it turned out that I had minimal bone loss, which wasn’t terrible, and I was told that Shayla would explain all of that to me at my next visit. Except someone’s going to have to break it to her that I won’t be her case study. Maybe that girl with celiac disease will return or the guy who never brushed his teeth? I'm sure there must be someone out there with bad teeth and a spare couple of weeks that will help Shayla graduate. One can only hope.