Once I received dental insurance from teaching, no other teacher could give me a recommendation for a dentist they liked, so I picked the dentist closest to my house. I walked to his office a block East of Vine in Los Angeles. His waiting room was empty. In hindsight I should have realized that if you avoid a restaurant or a nightclub that is empty, you should use that same popularity barometer for dental care.
I was asked to sit in the chair. The office was sparse and the equipment while shiny looked dated. The chairs, the lamps, the spittoon on the arm of the seat all looked state of the art circa 1975. The dentist worked as his own hygienist. He was a stout guy with a bowl shaped haircut. He spoke with a thick Russian accent and reminded me of Doctor Octopus from Spider-man comic books. I started wondering if he smuggled all of his equipment into the States when the Soviet Union crumbled.
He took no mercy on me. He grabbed my lip and scraped away. He began acting like a detective. “You do not smoke or drink coffee because your teeth are not stained, but you do not take good care of your teeth. You have one… two… three… four… five… six cavities and you need gum regeneration surgery.” He put a heavy lead bib on me and took some x-rays. He then pointed out all my cavities. “We need to schedule an appointment for as soon as possible.”
This was all horrific news to me. I’d had one cavity in my life previous to that encounter and my mouth felt great. I decided to get a second opinion and cancelled my appointment with the Russian Doctor Octopus. A couple months later I was going to visit my family in Miami for Christmas. I called my parents’ dentist’ s office and the dentist was glad to see me and told me to bring the X-rays.
The Russian dentist’s office was nowhere near as hospitable. When I called for the x-rays they said, “We can make you copy for twenty-five dollars. Copy be ready in one week.”
I explained I needed them immediately as I was leaving on a plane the next day. They put me on hold.
“OK. We sell you originals for twenty-five dollars.”
I didn’t feel like arguing, even though I assumed my insurance already paid them once for the x-rays. I brought them to Miami Beach where the family dentist looked them over and said, “I haven’t seen X-rays of this poor quality since I graduated from dental school in 1984. You could interpret them to show whatever you want to see. Let’s take a look at those teeth.” He sat me down and told me I didn’t have a single cavity. The guy was going to drill six holes in my teeth for n other reason than to make a buck. I considered reporting the dentist to the insurance company, but I never got around to it. And after all he had made me neurotic about making sure to floss my teeth every day.
But that experience made me terrified of a return to an unknown dentist. So I wasted my free dental care and now three years later when I have no dental insurance I returned to the family dentist who I now see as a man of great integrity. His hygienist though was Russian.
She sat me down and asked disapprovingly if it had really been three years since my last cleaning. I lied. “No I saw a dentist last year in LA.”
When I was younger I always had anxiety fueled dreams that I was losing my teeth. As I sat in the chair being tortured I was worried they would come back in my next slumber. Blood gushed from my gums as she criticized my shoddy tooth brushing, and told me I should return in four months because I had so much bacteria build up in my gums in one year. Four months? I couldn’t believe I had to pay for this torture once, much less three times a year. “You have one cavity.” she said. “But I will show the dentist. he is much more conservative about cavities than me.”
Again the dentist came to my rescue. “It’s a small cavity, so it’s not worth drilling. We’ll keep an eye on it, but right now the hole we’d make would be bigger than the cavity.”
He left and the hygienist/ KGB interrogator said, “See you in four months.”