My teeth have not been professionally cleaned for a couple of years, and part of a porcelain cap cracked last year and came off, leaving a slightly jagged metal undercovering behind. This distressed me until I realized that the tooth in question was visible only to me personally, when I turned my head at an angle and peered towards the back of my mouth. The tooth is functional and painfree, and since it didn't affect my appearance, I did nothing about it. Because, as you see, I am without a dentist. My beloved dentist, the goddess of all teeth, Dr. Judy Huey, moved to Scottsdale years ago, leaving me and my teeth in the lurch.
When I was a child, I had a perfectly satisfactory dentist who had a strong resemblance to Superman and who had a pleasant way of chatting while he did his work. As a troubled adolescent, I had braces, and I became so accustomed to having my teeth worked over that I more than once dozed off at the orthodontist's in the chair. I had no dental phobias, despite having been stuck by poor genetic luck with a set of brittle yellowish teeth. I was innocent and ignorant.
Then my bad dental experiences began. For two years, my family lived on naval bases in the Philippines, with my father working as a civilian there. We were in a sort of strange position: we lived in government-supplied housing, officer's housing at that for one of the two years; we could shop at the commissary; but we were forbidden to go near the medical providers. For two years whenever I had a health problem, my parents just dithered and ignored the issue aside from the usual, painful and embarrassing family laying-on-of-hands, faith healing rituals. Thankfully I never got appendicitis, and meningitis was in the future but hadn't yet struck, so I got by for two years without seeing a doctor despite what I thought were ear infections and strep throat and a bout with pinkeye. But I did have dental problems. I had gone to the Philippines with braces on and no plan for getting them taken off, leaving behind my orthodontist in New Hampshire. More pressingly, a boy gave me a piece of gum on the school bus (we had an hour long drive over very bad roads that first year to get to the Department of Defense high school), and as I was chewing it, a large piece of one of my teeth broke off. This was painful and horrible and traumatic, and I never chewed gum again. I was left with a jagged, wretched, painfilled shard of a tooth.
My parents got this deemed an emergency, which allowed me to be treated by a base dentist, who was angry and resentful. During the entire appointment to fix my tooth, this man cursed me out, ranting at me, a shy fifteen year-old girl who was homesick and whose tooth hurt, that he had not trained to fix the teeth of people like me. He was there to fix soldiers' teeth, not stupid girls' teeth, and he should never have been asked to work on my mouth, and he couldn't understand why any dentist ever would touch my abhorrent, teenaged girl mouth. I had never been treated meanly or rudely by a dentist before, and I shrunk up and said nothing in return. Little did I know that this was the first of many horrible, horrible, horrible dental experiences ahead.
More happily in the Philippines my mother found a wonderful orthodontist, trained in the U.S., who had a delightful personality and gentle hands. Some of the happiest days I ever had with my mother, a woman with whom normally I have a lot of tension, especially in those days, were on orthodontist days. We would bring one of her friends, I would miss a day of school, and we would make the long drive to Angeles City. After my orthodontist appointment, we would eat lunch at a fabulous Mexican restaurant offering the Filipino take on Mexican food. We used to pay a street child to watch our car (there was always competition for that position), and I remember giving one of them a bag of Mexican food to his sheer and utter delight. (In the Philippines I learned how wealthy indeed the American middle class is if you look from a global perspective).
When we returned to the States, I went back to my Superman lookalike childhood dentist. When I went to Boston for college, I always did my dental work during the holiday breaks and summers. When I graduated from college and lived in Boston for real, I thought I should get a Boston dentist. I asked my boss, the head of WBUR-FM, what dentist she used (a very particular woman, my boss was, and I thought her dentist must be the best of the best). That led me to Traumatic Dentist Visit #2, as the doddering dentist administered an unbearably painful cleaning, botched the X-rays and couldn't tell from them what needed to be done for work, but insisted I needed many follow-up visits. I managed to get the failed x-rays and, facing reality, went back up to visit my family and my childhood dentist, who in his Portsmouth, N.H. office mocked the wretched X-rays I'd brought along. "That must be some dentist you saw down there in Boston! Can't even take an x-ray! Well, I'm just glad you can bring yourself to come to us here in tiny little Portsmouth, when you could be at a big city dentist."
Then I was accepted at Stanford and moved out west, too far to go to the dentist in Portsmouth. My parents moved at the same time to Tucson, so I wouldn't be able to mix dental business with visiting them. I was dentistless.
At Stanford I got student dental insurance, a kind of dental insurance that turned out to be the worst of the worst of dental insurance. It was a dental insurance that paid a dentist a flat monthly fee for each enrolled patient, as well as negotiated, low amounts for each treatment. The first two dentists assigned to me and my first husband (whom I married at the end of my first year of law school, under the false impression that if our relationship could survive a cross-country move and the first year of law school, it would survive anything and therefore I should just as well turn it into marriage) refused to see us. Whenever we called for appointments, they were too busy. Evidently their plan was to enroll as many patients as possible, pocket the monthly fees, and provide no services. This was Traumatic Dentist Experiences #3 and #4, the dentists who would never see us, no matter how often we called.
We did manage to get reassigned to another dentist (Traumatic Dentist #5) one who was willing to treat our teeth, all too willing to treat our teeth. He just wasn't willing to give us novocaine. It was kind of a shock to go in for fillings and have the painkilling step just omitted without discussion. I was good friends with a doctor at that time who prescribed me some painkillers I would take on the 5 Fulton on the way to this dentist, which helped until the doctor expansively told me that what I was getting from him would not help sharp pains, only diffused ones, and that at best I was getting a placebo effect, which of course vanished after that heartless discurse. This dentist was ambitious and greedy, and he confided in me, whom he saw as a kindred soul given that I was in law school, that he really wanted a Mercedes. On that same visit we discussed the Mercedes, the dentist told me I needed three teeth capped and root canaled. I had never had a root canal and was frankly terrified of having it done by a man who didn't normally administer novocaine. I stalled. On my next visit, the dentist pressured me to set up a series of visits for my four root canals. "I thought you said three?" I said. He clearly prevaricated and mumbled, "One is recommended." This was Traumatic Dentist #5, the most horrifying and traumatic of them all to date.
I left that day and never returned. I didn't get any dental treatment for the next two years, spending all that time fretting from time to time over how three of my teeth must be rotting out of my head due to my not having had them given root canals and caps.
Once I was entrenched as a young associate at a large law firm, I took my improved dental insurance and went nervously out to get my neglected teeth treated. I was assigned to a dentist in a very tall downtown building, a fancy building near my fancy office. This dentist said that I didn't need any root canals at all, which made me all the angrier at my last, sleazy dentist (who went into local politics and whose name I often see plastered across the city at election time, which always brings me flashbacks of those novocaine-less fillings and those threatened root canals). However, this dentist was no great gem, either. He did little work himself, leaving it to his young, fresh-out-of-dental school associates. I had one of my neglected teeth capped, and the dentist's office had no time for me to return to get the permanent cap put on. I went for a long time with the frail temporary cap, which led the head dentist to give the associate dentist assigned to me a dressing-down within my hearing. I sank down further and further in the examining chair as the head dentist railed on and on about how it was a miracle my tooth had survived.
My first husband had a worse experience. This dentist's office was really, really into x-raying, and their greatest pride and joy was a space age x-ray machine which rotated around your skull as you sat still in the chair. While he was being x-rayed, this machine got stuck trying to go around his head (he had a very large head indeed, being 6'4" and with a large head even for that height). While the machine was still attempting to X-ray him, techs had to wrestle with it and shove it and his head about, trying to extricate him from it. After they got it off him, they adjusted it and tried to get him to sit for another panoramic x-ray. He refused, feeling that he'd had more than enough X-ray exposure that day to last him for years, which pissed off the dentists, who truly felt you could never get enough X-rays done. Thus ended our experiences with Traumatic Dentist #6.
We were wondering if there were any acceptable dentists at all in the city of San Francisco, and we took a hiatus from dental work. Then my ex had a friend at his new job refer him to a dentist, a wonderful dentist. "I think I'm the only white patient there," the friend said. "It's the greatest dental office. You won't believe it."
By that point, I was pretty cynical, and my teeth were pretty neglected once again (after the delayed cap and the X-ray horror of my husband, we once again went for a couple of years without dental treatment). In the waiting room, I filled out the history form, and I wrote down all the terrible experiences I'd had. Then a petite woman of Asian descent walked out into the waiting room, and turning her large, kind eyes on me, introduced herself gently as Dr. Judy Huey, expressed her sympathies on my bad experiences, and asked me kindly if I needed some gas to help me get back to the treatment room. My teeth and I were in love, and we embarked upon a happy era of dental health. Dr. Huey had tiny, tiny hands with deft little fingers one can barely detect in one's mouth, and her warm personality made the patient feel confident and relaxed.
I took to gushing about my dentist to everyone I knew. "I never realized how the size of a dentist's hands make such a big difference. I never want to go to a dentist again who isn't an Asian woman, with such tiny little hands. Dr. Huey can put her whole hand in my mouth and I wouldn't notice it." People looked at me oddly when I went on like that, and I was aware that I sounded like a pervert, but I didn't care. Dr. Huey was the goddess of all teeth and deserved to be worshipped and to have her patient acolytes spread the word of her wonders.
During this happy dental era, I not only got my teeth cleaned on a regular basis and filled as needed, but I also underwent optional, cosmetic dentistry. I tried cosmetic whitening (still not getting my teeth up to Hollywood levels, but an improvement). I replaced an old cap to get a better appearance and had a veneer put on the tooth neighboring the cap to make them match. The day did come that I did need a root canal, and it turned out painless (I was so glad again that I'd never submitted to the quack dentist's plans to do four root canals. Dr. Huey sent me to an endodontologist who was also of Asian descent with tiny, gentle hands and who also had generous painkillers and a movie menu for me to pick from).
Along the way I divorced the old husband, and my new husband soon became a regular at Dr. Huey's. Dr. Huey changed offices, and we moved along with her. When Iris was born, Dr. Huey gave her a gentle introduction to dentistry. First Iris was brought along as a toddler to watch Mommy get check-ups, cleanings, and fillings. Then Iris was, with Mommy close at hand, given her own cleaning and had a couple of small cavities filled. This was done so gently and smoothly, and I felt such happiness that my child was being introduced to dental work so kindly. Maybe she could live a life without dental trauma. I wrote thank you notes to Dr. Huey and to her very kind dental assistant for making Iris's introduction to dentistry so happy.
Then dental tragedy struck. Dr. Huey's husband's health required a move to the desert. Soon Dr. Huey was in Scottsdale and I was without a dentist. A very young dentist purchased Dr. Huey's practice, and I didn't have confidence in her. My husband found a dentist, practically enough one near our house, but he told me not to go there. "It's good enough for me, but you would hate him. I just know." He wasn't taken with this dentist at all, but felt he would settle for him due to convenience.
I tried my friend Joyce's beloved dentist, but that was another trauma. The dentist herself was a lovely, gentle person who inspired confidence, but there is no way I am enduring her office staff or dental technicians. My visit was upsetting before I even got there: a nasal, bitchy office worker called me several times on the phone with questions about the dental insurance. In my experience, normally you just present a dental office with your insurance card, and they take care of the rest. Not this office. The woman called me, her tone and voice extremely unpleasant, before I had even set foot in the office, demanding such things as where to submit the claims (which was not printed on the card I had). At that time, my husband's employer, Doggyo, was so small that it had no HR person, which deeply offended the dental office woman, who was quite sniffy about it. I cravenly gave the woman my husband's cellphone number to get her off my back, under the pretense that he, the employee through whom all benefits flowed, was in a better spot to answer her questions. At the end of the day I actually went to the dentist for a routine cleaning and exam, this nasal bitch called my husband seven times on the phone, giving him attitude each time.
While I waited for forty-five minutes after my appointment time, occasionally overhearing the mean, nasal woman calling my husband on the phone, I was stuck enduring a really loud trailer for an offensive Disney movie being shown over and over again at top volume on a large screen TV. I came close to leaving then, and in retrospect, I wish I had. Because when I was finally ushered back, I underwent Traumatic Dental Experience Number Seven. The supercilious tech rammed a painful x-ray plate into my mouth which was clearly too large for my poor mouth, and which triggered my gag reflex. The tech laughed merrily at me as I was dry heaving, and then she took the same plate up again and sadistically shoved it into my mouth again. Once again I was retching, and she was laughing at me. Oh, what a merry sight, a middle-aged woman dry heaving in a dental chair. There was not an apology to be heard, the impression being given that I had made the day of the sadistic staff and that they were well-pleased by the turn of the events. The irony of this? This was a dental practice specializing in traumatized, phobic dental patients!!
I was also somewhat freaked out by the weird office layout. There were no partitions or privacy walls separating patients; we were all in chairs radiating off from a curving hallway. Thus while I was waiting, I had to hear a loud, nervous man have his cleaning and treatment. I don't want to hear other people's dental work, and I also think it was no treat for the other patients to listen to my retching noises.
To further add to that discomfort, the chairs were placed such that you couldn't see the staff, who lurked behind us in the center of the radius of this strange, round dental office. This was not enjoyable for me as some of the staff were happily discussing my hilarious dry heaving, which was evidently the highlight of their day, maybe their whole week.
When I finally met the kindly, chubby, soft spoken dentist with gentle hands and eyes, there had been too much damage already done. There is no way I will ever set foot in that office again. (My friend was a bit upset with me for not liking her dentist, to whom she was greatly loyal, and criticized me for the way in which I'd handled things. A year later, though, she did share with me a spectacularly rude thing said to her by the nasal office bitch).
Meanwhile my poor children underwent their own Traumatic Dental Experience. I signed up my poor, dental orphans with what was considered by virtually every parent I knew to be the finest pediatric dental office in the city. I had the impression that everyone who was anyone took their children to that dentist. Indeed I'd had other parents sniff at my habit of taking Iris along to my own dentist, rather than to this particular pediatric dentist. However, events showed that I had been right. This dentist practice became Traumatic Dental Experience Number Eight for me and Traumatic Dental Experience Number One for Iris and Lola.
Just because a dental office sports a small dog in a tutu and has toys strewn about does not mean that it treats children well. The dental technicians were rough, and one scolded poor three year-old Lola for nervously flipping her skirt up and down. "Sit like a lady!" The original dentist who had made this place so fashionable amongst parents wasn't really about any more (I noticed she had a nameplate up at another building), and the dentists who saw my girls were not particularly warm or nice or gentle. They weren't particularly nice to me, either. Iris was diagnosed as having a cavity with an abscess, and the dentist glared at me. "I hope you knew about this!"
I was stymied. Wouldn't I have been a worse parent if I'd known about the abscess but just not bothered to do anything about it? Iris was puzzled, also. After we left, she whispered to me, "Is an abscess supposed to hurt? It never hurt." We both felt stupid and ashamed.
At a later visit, one of the dentists was lecturing me about how I should be applying topical fluoride to the children's teeth and hounded me about why, why, why wasn't I doing that. I confided that I felt that they got a lot of fluoride already in their tap water and toothpaste and that I'd been reading about fluoridosis online. The dentist rolled her eyes in disgust and slammed her body against the cabinet at what she so clearly saw as my internet-assisted idiocy. Lola had been crying throughout her treatment without much comfort that day, and it seemed appropriate to draw curtain over this particular act in our dental odyssey.
Over a year went by, close to two years, with a perennial item in my To Do List being "Find New Dentists." Eventually, after some canvassing of acquaintances, I had gathered several recommendations for Dr. Katz, a pediatric dentist located conveniently not far from the girls' school. I steeled my nerves for the lecture I was undoubtedly going to get for not having taken the children to the dentist in so long. Instead, Dr Katz was jovial and joking, hugging me and handing out toys to the children. Lola, thoroughly traumatized by her horrible prior dentist, burst into tears the moment her turn came to be examined. Instead of forcing her, as the prior dentist would have done (that dentist was quite gifted at ignoring a small child's sobs), this new, more satisfactory dentist didn't make Lola get into the chair at all. Her cleaning and exam were done with her sitting on a stool, holding my hand, and no X-rays were done because they didn't want to force them on a crying child.
Iris's same old tooth which had had an abscess before, leading the ex-dentist to tell me off, had a new abscess. The highly satisfactory new dentist was critical of the old dentist's decision to leave that baby tooth in place. It would never have formed a new abscess if it had been pulled, and the material used for a cap on that tooth was not in favor any more among dentists who kept up with technology. Clearly that tooth had been mishandled.
I liked hearing criticism of the technique of the old dentist. It made me feel better about having left for personal reasons. As Iris said to the new dentist when he asked why she was changing dentists, "We have to get a new dentist because the old dentist rolled her eyes at Mommy."
On Lola's return visit to get a cavity fixed, the dentist introduced her to the joys of laughing gas. Lola soon went from terrified crying and clutching at my hand to relaxing in the chair. After we left, she confided in me, "Do you know why this dentist is better than the old one? He doesn't make me keep my mouth open too long!" On her second visit, Lola fell in love with the "giggle gas" and had not a single tear. She confided in everyone she knew that going to her dentist makes her giggle and giggle because she gets giggle gas.
Lola had clearly been on the path to lasting dental phobia, but has been saved due to an overdue change in dentists. Iris herself was spared that only because she could remember her kind first dentist (after every visit to the old pediatric dentist, Iris would say, "I miss Dr. Huey" and hound me to find a new grown-up dentist for myself and her alike. Lola could go to the unliked pediatric dentist, but Iris and I, Iris thought, needed a grown-up's dentist). The new pediatric dentist told me that he'd been badly treated by horrific dentists himself and that had inspired him to create his practice, a practice where children would feel no pain or discomfort and would be treated like they were important. It pained him to see that Lola had developed a dental phobia, and he was genuinely happy to see her move past it, aided by the delightful "giggle gas."
Now it is only I who is dentistless, with my poor, uncared for teeth languishing into decay. Iris and the Sober Husband have both taken to nagging me to try another dentist, but I just don't want to. In my lifetime there have only been two satisfactory dental offices for me and so many others which were really and truly awful. My childhood dentist has retired, and Dr. Huey, my only good dentist of my adulthood, is so far away. Occasionally the idea is bruited about that I should just go to Scottsdale twice a year to see my one true dentist. I can't justify that lavish lifestyle, but I can't bring myself to try another San Francisco dentist, either. I'm basically waiting it out until something truly terrible happens in my mouth, which will force me to action.
I don't imagine the new Nice Dentist works on his own teeth. Who does he see? You should ask him. If he really did have a bad experience then he should unerstand and gladly refer you to someone he knows and trusts. Ask him. BTW ... I hate the dentist too. I had a botched root canal myself. So botched, I no longer have that tooth.
Ditto what Crazy Mo said about references. Sorry you had all that trauma. I only had 1 bad dentist who damaged a tooth enough that it eventually had to come out. (Which was replaced with an implant. THERE'S a story)
My issue is that I have a (relatively) small mouth. This is the opposite of what most of my former employers have told me in the past.
I live in the East Bay, and if you can stomach a trip out to Castro Valley I have an awesome dentist. I have been going there my entire life, and the first dentist I saw is retired (but still comes in to see some of his patients). The new dentist is very nice, and they have NEVER tried to talk me or any of my family into procedures we did not absolutely need. The office staff includes the retired dentist's daughter, and some very nice folks. There is one hygenist who annoyingly finished my sentences (wrongly), but she does a good job, and there is one particularly small handed and gentle hygenist that I would recommend. I know that shluping out to the EB seems daunting, but if you are willing to try, drop me a line. I have travelled from all over the state just for this dentist's services.
Stan Tong, DDS, 2001 Van Ness Ave. Tell him Anonymous sent you!
This gives new meaning to "dental history."
I hope that was cathartic! It sure was long. Interesting read, but long!
I can commiserate with the dentist that didn't understand why he had to work on stupid girls' teeth. I often tell my niece that it's not safe for me to touch her, either, as she has cooties. This year, however, we were able to play together since I got a cootie shot (Circle, circle, dot, dot -- Now I have a cootie shot!)
We had a good dentist once that was a few blocks from our house. When his wife popped out a kid, his Dad supervised his dental techs for cleanings for a couple of days and we met his Dad.
Then we moved a few towns away and his father's practice was a few blocks from our new house. Dental fate!
When I was a kid, I had a dentist that filled one of my teeth without novocaine. He said, "It's not too deep. You're a big kid! You don't need novocaine." Hurt like hell. When I got home and told my Dad, my Dad said the dentists probably didn't want to wait the twenty minutes for the novocaine to take effect. What kind of sadistic greedy bastard talks a kid into a few minutes of pain in order to save twenty minutes. I shoulda kicked him in the 'nads.
Ivan Serdar. http://www.yelp.com/biz/ivan-a-serdar-dmd-san-francisco#hrid:T_kvKTGuIa4tcKAe_8rDOQ/query:dentist
Icouldn't read all of it. I got to the broken tooth in the Philipines and now I want to cry. Hate teeth. Oh, hate teeth so much.
Your kids like "laughing gas?" See - they are Loadie Pros already! This doesn't bode well for their teenage years....
I haven't been to the dentist in over 8 years (no insurance), and have been contemplating checking out Mexican dental vacations. It is wicked-cheap to fly to Cancun from Austin now, and I'm guessing there are probably several practices down there where my uber-neglected teeth could be worked on. Maybe you should join me, DH, and we can have a trip to Mexico together! (BTW, I despise Cancun, and would never in a million years stay there while my work is being done....)
I'm so sad you didn't like the peripherals around Dr. A because she is so sweet and kind and gentle and fun. She always tells me what she's about to do and how long it will take. I love her.
You should look for a dental school near you. When my wife and I were in school, she got a gold crown done by a student. It was way in the back of her mouth, so you can't see it, unless your a dentist or kind of intimate.
Anyway, every dentist she's gone to since has always commented on the crown and what excellent work it was. They always ask her where she got it done.
While it was free (or nearly so -- I've kind of forgotten), she said it took a long time to do. It was one of the students final projects to graduate. I guess kind of a final exam. And for each step of the process, the professor had to come and inspect the work. he'd make comments and the student would do another five minutes of work and then wait for another inspection...
She didn't get a vacation in Cancun, though.
Oh, this broke my heart. I have had my share of less than perfect dentists, but none have ever been so obnoxious, incompetent, or mean.
My dentist has a little office in the small more rural town to the left of us. The hygienist has a lovely, lovely gracious manner and a liquid Indian accent. The dentist is kindly and sincere. And so far, I've had to replace or redo any of this work.
My children's pediatric dentist and staff are equally kind.
I feel so badly you haven't had the same good experience.
I totally agree with the suggestion that you should seek out a dental school.
There's always 1-800-DENTIST
I'm sure you were really looking for recommendations from you readers when you wrote this, but I'll jump on the bandwagon all the same. ;)
Dr. David Fong, in Oakland,and his staff are awesome. Very friendly and caring. My first experience there, I made a face while the hygienist was using the sonic hoozy whatzit and she asked me if I was OK. I said, "Yes. I just really hate that sound." She immediately put it down and picked up her hand tools and has never used it again, six years later.
His office is at 1730 Franklin Street, Oakland. a block from the 19th street BART station, or they validate parking in the garage directly across the street.
Best Dentist I've ever been to and like you, I've had some doozies!
Have a look here: http://www.dentalfearcentral.org/forum/forumdisplay.php?f=58
This one used to be my dentist in London years ago and she was painless and kind: http://www.dentalfearcentral.org/forum/showthread.php?t=4020
You need to find your Superman again though - that's what it's supposed to be like.
As a slightly traumatised 'fussy' patient like me, you absolutely should NOT try a dental school!
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