Trembling, I slid up onto the huge dentist chair. It was big and roomy even for an adult, but since I was just starting second grade the chair felt as big as a room. It was hard and slippery. To the left of the chair was a small round white spit sink. Despite being so young, I was familiar with dentist visits. My teeth were riddled with cavities.
Today was a school day. In the waiting room Daddy had told me that I could either go to school for the rest of the day or go back home after my appointment. In first grade, my teacher had been Sister Donna; this year I had Sister Mary Michaleen. Even though she was older and stricter, I still preferred being in school over visiting the dentist.
I hated the waiting room. I always heard the horrible whine of the drill as the dentist worked on someone else. There was always a bitter smell in the air, too. My brother once told me that teeth burn from the friction of the drill. The smell reminded me of Mom singeing the hair and pinfeathers off chickens before cooking them.
If waiting in the waiting room was horrible, waiting for the dentist in his huge, hard chair with nothing to do but stare out the window in front of me was far worse. I wanted to cry, but my Mama would have said I was too old to do that.
The dentist finally stepped into the room and briefly peered into my mouth at the tooth he wanted to fix. Then he stood directly in front of me and slowly began to fill a syringe with Novocain. It had a very long needle. That was all I could look at as my body went icy cold with terror.
The only prep for the injection was his order, “Open up.” I felt pressure as he thrust the needle deep into my inner jaw. As the needle went deeper it seemed to make a crunching sound inside my head. I gagged. The dentist snarled, “Stop that. You don’t want to have this needle break while it’s inside you. If that happened, we’d have to call the ambulance.”
I struggled to breathe through my panic, convinced that I was about to die. Then he pulled the needle out and a strange numbness began to spread along my jaw and even into my tongue.
The dentist tried to keep my mouth dry so he could do his work, but the more absorbent cotton wads he jammed in, the more my mouth watered. At one point, he stepped away from his work and I could hear him talking to Daddy. I worried about all the saliva collecting in my mouth. When he returned, his fingers tasted like soap and his breath smelled like a stale cigarette.
I felt shaky when we left the dentist’s office, but when Daddy asked me what I wanted to do, I said I wanted to go to school. Instinctively I must have known that I’d be busy there and not have time to think about what I had just experienced.
A few years ago, I laughed when I watched the musical, “Little Shop of Horrors.” In it, Steve Martin portrayed a deranged dentist who loved to inflict pain. At one point he sang, “When I was young and just a bad little kid, my momma noticed funny things I did; like shootin’ puppies with a BB gun. I’d poison guppies and when I was done, I’d find a pussy cat and bash its head. That’s when my momma said, “My boy, I think someday you’ll find a way to make your natural tendencies pay. You’ll be a dentist. You have a talent for causing things pain. People will pay you to be inhumane. Son be a dentist. You’ll be a success.”
The character that Steve Martin played decided to make his work more pleasurable by using laughing gas. For himself, not the patient. Fully under the influence, he opened a closet door to reveal a shrine to his mother. Clasping his hands and dropping to his knees, he exclaimed, “Oh Momma!”
I don’t for a minute think people who become dentists enjoy inflicting pain, but I suspect that many people in this world fear visiting dentists because of experiences like my own. The good news is that dentistry has changed drastically since the 1950’s.
As a child, I felt totally alone in dangerous waters when I went to the dentist. My doctor didn’t have an attentive dental assistant or continuous suction to get rid of saliva. He didn’t take time to let me know what was going to happen or be encouraging. He didn’t wear a mask or gloves.
As an adult, I have never seen the syringe with the numbing medicine prepared within my view. Before an injection, the area is always numbed with something the dentist rubs on the spot topically.
The only bad recent experience that I’ve heard was a patient telling the dentist, “I couldn’t sleep all night, knowing that I had to come here today to see you.”
Failing not only as a comedian, but in being a sympathetic person, the dentist sarcastically replied, “Well, I couldn’t sleep last night either, knowing that you were coming to see me.”