My last trip to the dentist? Four years ago.
I know, I know. Yes, dental insurance is a perk of my job. Yes, I know I’m supposed to go once every six months for a check-up. Yes, I know dental health correlates with heart health. But my last trip to the dentist was egregious — so remarkably awful — I really thought I might never go back to a dentist at all.
Even that visit was the last in a long string of awful visits. In Jackson, Mississippi, a local dentist made me fill out several pages of odd paperwork … only to reveal, later, that the paperwork was part of a marketing ploy to sell laser tooth whitening. This was presented along with important, required paperwork — like getting my medical history and insurance information — and then used to pressure me to buy cosmetic services.
So I went to another dentist in Jackson. There, I came across the world’s most inept dental hygienist. She gouged my gums hard enough to make them bleed … a lot. She used my lower lip as a prop for her palm, grinding the soft inner flesh against my lower teeth. The experience was so painful, I stopped her in the middle of the cleaning and left the office.
“But we’re not finished,” she said.
“Yes, we are,” I said.
(Clyde, convinced I was being a wuss, went and signed up for the same hygienist. It was the worst, most painful cleaning he had ever had … and when he told the front desk staff he wouldn’t be back because of it, they simply said, “Yeah, a lot of folks tell us that.”)
But no one put on a dental horror show quite like my last dentist — a smiling, gay fellow up in Buckhead. Once he seated me in the chair, I overheard him having a telephone conversation with my insurer: “Full pan and scan. Yes, a full set. Less than a year ago. You won’t? Okay, then, what will you pay for? Three upper, three lower? Okay.”
Seconds later, he was back in the room with me. “So, today, we’ve decided, based on what I can see in your mouth, that we need to do six x-rays, upper and lower, instead of the panoramic we usually do.”
About ten minutes later, after x-rays, he returned. “We’re going to go ahead and fit you today for an appliance that will take care of that nighttime tooth grinding you’re having.”
“But I’m not having any problems related to nighttime tooth grinding.”
“You are,” the dentist said. “That’s why you’re here.”
“It isn’t,” I said. “I’m here for a cleaning and check-up.”
He flounced out of the room. When he returned, he flashed a few photos of bad teeth in front of me. “So, we’ve checked your crowns and fillings.”
“Those aren’t my teeth,” I said.
“They’re to give you an idea of where things are headed,” the dentist said, quickly putting the photos away. “All your crowns and fillings are past their maintenance date. They all need to be redone. You need to make appointments for us to replace all crowns and refill all fillings. Sharon here will give you the details.”
Sharon, who seemed to have no credentials other than the white lab coat she wore, pulled out several papers she asked me to sign. “This necessary work will cost around $6,000,” she said. “And for amounts this large, we recommend you supplement your existing dental insurance with dental financing. We can offer loans at around five percent, with twenty-four months to pay.”
When I made it clear I wasn’t signing anything, Sharon’s thin veneer of pleasantness disappeared completely. “Those crowns will break within a year,” she said, “and the fillings will fall out. You’ll spend less by signing a commitment for this work now.”
I didn’t sign a thing — and I never went back, there or anywhere, for four years. (Those crowns and fillings? All in place, all just fine, four years later.)
So it was with great trepidation that I finally went back to the dentist this week. I’m pleased to report that the check-up, all things considered, went well. The hygienist was gentle. The cleaning wasn’t traumatic. There was talk of more aggressive home care — but no mention at all that crowns or fillings were in danger of tumbling out of my mouth.
There was, in the end, a recommendation I’m hearing people say their dentists are recommending pretty regularly: a “deep cleaning,” also called scaling. I’ve read that scaling tends to be over-recommended, and that a more aggressive home regimen (more brushing, longer brushing, more religious flossing) can achieve almost as much as a scaling can. So: I’m still deciding what I want to do there.
The good news, though, is that I didn’t feel pressured or hard-sold while at this dentist — and the experience didn’t put me off going back.