A Routine Visit by Robynn
There really is no such thing as a routine visit to the dentist, or to anywhere for that matter. Every experience is rooted in a bigger story and that changes things. Yesterday I went to the dentist for a filling. This should have been a routine visit, a simple procedure, but I was full of anxiety and fear. It might be because my own personal dental history is full of the stuff of spy movies: political intrigue, characters who disappear in the middle of the night, scenes that mirror torture, long bus rides, foreign currency, dark rooms. It seems like none of my visits to the dentist have ever been routine.
Growing up in a boarding school tucked up and away in the Himalayan foothills just north of Islamabad (Pakistan) meant we had no easy access to dentists and dental care. Brushing our teeth was mandatory. Toothaches were taken to the school nurse. She’d poke around in our mouths and determine whether a trip to the dentist was necessary. The dentist office was a two hour ride down the winding hills from Murree to Islamabad. It was an endurance test at the best of times. Tooth pain and motion sickness don’t marry well. Those trips to the dentist were often unbearable.
At some point in my childhood it was determined that I needed orthodontia. My parents decided on the renowned Dr Bhajva. She shared a practice with Dr Zafar Niazi, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s personal dental surgeon. One day we showed up for an appointment and there were a strange and mysterious hush over the office. Dr Niazi, previously arrested while Bhutto was on death row, had now gone into hiding. On another routine dentist visit we had made the trip down the mountain to see Dr Bhajva, only to discover that she too had disappeared. Her self-imposed exile didn’t last long but it did interfere with my braces being adjusted!
A few years later when I was in high school I developed a toothache. The school nurse, then the lovely Miss Njaa, took me to the nearby Military Hospital to see the dentist they had on staff. It was a dark nearly empty room with a single dentist chair in the center. Maybe the melodrama of the moment has altered my memories, but I seem to recall a single naked light bulb hanging by a wire over the chair. The dentist determined that would I need to have the tooth in question extracted. Miss Njaa asked if there would be anesthesia. Yes. Yes. No problem. She stood by me kindly, offering reassurances, while the dentist left the room to prepare for the procedure.
Upon his return he brought several assistants with him. One of them sprayed a fine mist into my mouth. Miss Njaa explained this must be a numbing liquid before they gave me a shot. Much to our surprise that spray was all the numbing I would get. Each of the assistants stepped forward and held down a limb. When Miss Njaa and I began to protest, the dentist stepped in with a stainless steel tool of some kind and reached into my mouth. He worked hard, straining, pushing, pulling, grabbing. I tried not to panic. The assistants kept my limbs out of the way. Miss Njaa, completely out of control and out of her element, repeatedly asked them to stop. After much effort, the dentist successfully removed my tooth. He packed my mouth with cotton and it was over.
It was just a routine visit to the dentist!
Each of our lives are rooted in a broader story. Capped with history, filled with memories, these experiences of the past colour our present day moments. Yesterday I admitted to Dr Smith, my dentist, that I was anxious about getting a filling. She sat back in her chair, took her mask off, and asked if I knew where that anxiety was coming from. I briefly told her the story of my visit to the Military Hospital in Murree. Her eyes grew round and large. Her eyebrows inched up her forehead. She shook her head slowly and said, “Oh my. That will do it!” She promised to be gentle and she was. She checked in with me several times, making sure I was okay. Hearing a snippet of my story increased her empathy and care.
It was a sweet reminder to me to inquire after each other. We have stories that make up who we are. Pulling a moment out of context might provoke us to roll our eyes: It’s just a routine visit to the dentist! Dr Smith asked after my fears. She cared enough to remove the mask and sit a few moments. It didn’t take a lot of time, but it meant the world to me, and it changed my experience in the chair.
After all, it really was only a (slightly redeemed) routine visit to the dentist!