War and Peace in the Dentist's Office

Lynette Benton

© Copyright 2018 by Lynette Benton

Photo of Lynette and her teeth.

This is a true tale of my encounter with a merciless dental hygienist. But I’m happy to report that my story turns out well in the end. 

Rosalie, the dental hygienist who had cleaned my teeth since I turned fifty—the beginning of my personal Periodontal Age—directed me to rinse. Then she announced she would be leaving Boston for San Francisco to set herself up as a massage therapist, a profession in which her pierced belly button would certainly be an asset. I inwardly cursed her for abandoning me to face heaven only knew what sadist who might replace her.

Before the age of fifty, my dental visits had been limited to fillings and the mandated twice a year cleanings. But as soon as I passed that half-century landmark, gum trouble reared up before me like a grizzly on its hind legs, making my visits anything but routine. I was treated by numerous dentists and hygienists, not all of them competent or gentle, before I found Dr. Raymond, a periodontist, and Rosalie, his hygienist. They handled my teeth and gums almost, well . . . affectionately.

Our relationship blurred the lines between doctor and patient. One bright Saturday morning, I’d run into Dr. Raymond in a bookstore and he’d had me open my mouth right there in the New Nonfiction aisle to have a look at work he’d recently performed. I’d taken his daughter to lunch to discuss her future when Dr. Raymond and his wife feared she would never settle into a career after college. I visited with his wife whenever she was filling in for the receptionist on a day I had an appointment. Dr. Raymond jokingly said I’d become as close to his family as a cousin.

As she gave me a goodbye hug, Rosalie, the departing hygienist, told me not to worry. Dr. Raymond offered equally sanguine assurances.

On the day of my first scheduled cleaning with the new hygienist I sidled up the stairs, trying to rid my mind of dire suspicions about what I was about to undergo.

Shirley, the new hygienist, was a compact woman in her late-forties, her makeup perfectly applied, her expression unmussed by even the slightest hint of a welcome.

“I’m ready for you,” she said.

Recalling the ominous invitation in an old Twilight Zone episode, what I heard was, “There’s room for one more.”

I slid into the chaise-type dental chair, and put my purse on the floor at my feet.

“Hi, Cousin,” Dr. Raymond said cheerfully, as he bounced into the room, his naturally curly hair like an animated halo around his head.

He turned to Shirley, who stood apart with her arms across her chest like a peeved prison guard. “Lynette just had surgery last week,” Dr. Raymond said briskly. “You didn’t have any trouble with that side did you, Lynette?” he asked.

“Uh…I …I don’t know,” I stuttered, unnerved by Shirley’s obvious indifference to establishing any sort of connection with me, let alone helping me transition from upright woman of the world to supine, groveling patient.

“Shirley uses a new gel that’ll make the cleaning very comfortable,” Dr. Raymond continued brightly.

I didn’t tell him that Shirley was all the newness I felt I could stand.

“Don’t clean this area, Shirley,” Dr. Raymond said, gently touching the upper right side of my cheek. “It’ll still be sensitive. And Lynette always does a good job with her cleaning anyway.” He gave my shoulder a quick pat, and left us.

The moment Shirley started the cleaning, I jumped. She had begun scraping—hard—the very teeth Dr. Raymond had told her to ignore.

When she moved her hands to reach for another instrument, I slid down the chaise, grabbed my purse from the floor, and squeezed it tightly in my lap. If I’d had a seat belt, I’d have fastened it.

The overture out of the way, Shirley took a deep breath, planted one white-clad foot on the floor, and lurched at my bottom molars. She scraped over, under, around each tooth.

She and I were locked in combat, as she wrestled her instruments around the drool tool she’d hung from my bottom teeth. My tongue became entangled in her gloved fingers as they darted from tooth to tooth.

Thick perspiration covered my skin. I tasted metal. I tasted blood.

This dental visit felt like a rap sheet of my previous misdemeanors—the nights of my retrospectively carefree twenties and thirties when, having partied into the early hours, I went to bed after giving my teeth only a cursory brushing while I yanked off my dancing shoes. But I’d changed my ways. That counted for something, didn’t it?

Shirley’s hands skipped from one side of my mouth to the other. She put her whole weight into the job. It wouldn’t have surprised me if she had leveraged herself by pressing her knee into my chest.

What on earth is she doing? I wondered. Back when I thought the purpose of brushing and flossing was to remove food from the surface of my teeth and anything stuck between them, Dr. Raymond had taught me how to brush and floss properly.

“You’ve got to get under the gum line,” he’d pronounced, wielding an array of toothbrushes and flossing appurtenances.

I’d done as he directed ever since.

Apparently our teeth weren’t designed to last as long as we humans now live, so as we grow older, we have to treat them like precious gems. Before meeting Dr. Raymond, I’d missed many nights of flossing but as a result of gingivitis, root canals, and crowns, I’d since regularly used a range of dental cleaning equipment and special-purpose toothpastes on my teeth each night. My dental visits always ended with my proud acceptance of accolades from Dr. Raymond after Rosalie reported that only the tiniest bit of plaque had been discovered during the cleaning.

You have a cavity there,” Shirley muttered, giving a sensitive tooth an indignant poke.

She hitched herself onto her seat to begin polishing my teeth. But instead of Rosalie’s light tap of paste on each tooth, Shirley pressed the whirring instrument against my teeth. What’s more, she apparently didn’t trust the efficacy of that refreshing grapey flavored cleanser, which signaled the end of the cleaning and always seemed like a lingering reward from childhood visits to the neighborhood dentist. This Tartar preferred a tasteless paste that she probably considered a fitting penalty for patients who dared to present themselves with even a miniscule amount of plaque on their teeth.

Dr. Raymond swept back into the room. “How was the cleaning, Cousin?”

Shirley was still towering over me so I said it had been all right, and dutifully made an appointment for my next cleaning in three months time. But the moment I got home, I swallowed two Tylenol tablets to quiet my throbbing mouth and called Dr. Raymond’s office. When the receptionist answered, I said, “Tell Dr. Raymond his cousin’s on the line.”

I must not have been the only patient to complain about the new hygienist. About a week later, Dr. Raymond phoned me.

“I hope you’ll come back here for your next cleaning,” he said. “I let Shirley go. My wife’s friend is her replacement. I know you’ll like her.”

Relief enveloped me. I had paid for my youthful dental transgressions, and now my teeth would be back in the hands of dental practitioners who treated me like family.

I live in the Greater Boston area. I’m a published writer and writing instructor. My mission is to inspire and help regular people all over the world to write about the events, large and small, in their lives!

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