Warning: This Article Contains Graphic Content Necessary for Enabling My Valuable Life Lesson. Be Advised

Keith Sones

Aug 6, 2020

By Keith Sones

One of the most innocuous, pedestrian, almost boring middle class statements a person can make in Western society is “I have an appointment with the dentist.” It’s right up there with “I have to do some grocery shopping” and “I’m off to walk the dog.” It does not inspire anyone to change their lives, nor is it a call to action of any sort. It’s an unremarkable announcement that will be forgotten by the listener as soon as it falls off the lips of the speaker.

But sometimes simple things have deeper meaning, and on occasion a modest declaration is actually code for a triumphant return, the completion of a journey that was far more insightful and rewarding than it may appear on the surface. Like when you notice that neighbour whom you haven’t seen in a while arrive home by car and you think she has just been out shopping, when in fact she has just returned from her last cancer treatment and been declared disease free. Or your work colleague who says he’d love to grab a coffee with you but has to run to his night school class. You feel a bit put out, while he’s about to be awarded his doctorate after successfully defending his thesis.

You see humdrum, they see freedom and reward. And you can’t know otherwise unless you hear the back story, and really understand why something that seems so insignificant is actually so important.

So, at the time of writing this, I have an appointment with the dentist today. And it’ll be the first time I’ve been there in 11 years.

Don’t take me to be a laggard, or someone that cares too little about their own health. In fact, I have exceptionally good dental hygiene habits. You could call me the King of Floss, the Maestro of Mouthwash and the Brushing Boss, and you’d be right on all counts. It’s just that I haven’t attended a dental institution in over a decade. I have a reason, and through the process I’ve learned something tremendously important both about myself and the world we live in. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Once we got past the “I have no money, a lousy temporary job and few prospects” part of our lives, my wife, kids and I have been a solid part of the middle class. Definitely the stereotype, almost the poster child. Living in a standard two-storey home, car in the driveway, mortgage invoice in the mail, taking kids to soccer practice, going to work, cutting the lawn. And every so often, going to see the dentist. There were no major orthodontal concerns, just the basics. There was a cleaning every few months, the odd cavity that popped up and was promptly rectified and a visit from the tooth fairy when the kids were young and lost an incisor.

There was one thing, however, that did become apparent early on. My son didn’t like needles, the kind that the dentist uses to freeze the gums prior to doing any construction work on his teeth. I mean he really didn’t like them. As a young child he had a cavity that needed filling, and actually opted to have the work done without any freezing! Now, there is a process for this, especially with children, where the dentist will assess whether it’s the right thing to do. I don’t want you thinking that I unleashed some maniac with a drill to attack my son. But after it was all said and done, he said he would rather have his tooth drilled through with no anesthetic at all than have a bit of numbing painkiller injected into his gum. Okay, his call. (NB: he has since changed his mind.)
Now, none of this is relevant to the story and the lesson I learned except that somewhere along the line the dental team took his medical chart, that light brown folder which is stacked along with hundreds of others in the office and wrote ,“Anaesthetic not accepted by patient, perform procedures without.” Along with his name. It’s good administrative practice to maintain this record, but sometimes has unintended effects.

My own dental history is also fairly clean. I had regular trips to the dentist as a kid, no cavities until my late teens and genetically very strong teeth. Alas, in later years the bone in my jaw started to decay, which was apparently also a genetic trait. You take the good with the bad, I suppose. In any event, having strong choppers with no bone to support them didn’t sound like a very good outcome; I pictured myself as an old man gumming my strained carrots while proudly wearing a necklace of beautiful teeth. So, my dentist recommended I see a specialist who would help slow the bone loss. Okay, you’re the expert, I thought. Let’s set it up.

A month or so later I arrived at the dental surgeon’s office; it was quite ordinary. Middle aged receptionist, shelves full of files, a few waiting room chairs grouped around a small table strewn with out-of-date magazines and some framed certificates on the wall pronouncing that the occupant was indeed really smart. I was comforted by the fact that the person who would be performing the surgery had more letters after her name than I had in my name — plenty of credentials would make for a swift, successful procedure.

I was led to the back, given a gown to don and subsequently introduced to the team of three that would be fixing me up. We engaged in a bit of small talk while the doctor scoured my chart with a skeptical eye, gazing upon the documents in the folder like it was the original copy of the Magna Carta. She looked at me, a withering look on her face, and asked dourly, “So, you won’t be taking the anesthetic”. When making the appointment, I had been asked if I wanted to pay extra to be fully sedated; knocked out like receiving a Mike Tyson right hook. I had declined, indicating that the regular stuff would be fine. Awake but numb.

To set the stage, the procedure called for grinding my teeth smooth so the gums would seal against them properly. Physically, the gums had to be cut and peeled back to expose the upper surfaces of the teeth. The doc would then grind the ridges from my teeth and set the gums back in place. This would happen on the upper and lower teeth, inside and out.

So, all prepped to go, a rubber tent the size of an army field hospital set in my mouth, they got to work.

Without any anesthetic at all. No numbing, no painkillers. Just a masked person wielding a scalpel and grinder, and me.

At the moment of the first cut, the pain was terrible, but it was about to get worse. Once the gums were lifted, it was horrifying. My head was spinning, and over the next while I blacked out at least twice. The worst of it all, however, viewed through the lens of calmer retrospect, was my thought process. Given that I was in the hands of professionals, I assumed that all of this was normal. That the agony was acceptable. Perhaps I was too much of a crybaby to put up with what others had to go through. Maybe I just had a low pain tolerance. At no time did it even cross my mind to do the most obvious and necessary thing — tell them to stop.

I barely remember leaving the office, mouth swollen and bloody. There is no way I should have been allowed to drive the 60 km home by myself without a recovery period, but in a fit of irony I was told it was okay since I was not affected by anaesthetic. Life can be cruel.

Weeks later, I became desperate to know why things had turned out as they did. I needed answers to my questions. Was I just weaker than the average patient? Is this procedure, which I was sure violated the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners, common? Surely something had to change, to improve the process.

Remember my son, the one who didn’t like needles? The note on his chart was somehow translated onto my dental record and submitted to the specialist’s office. “Anaesthetic not accepted by patient, perform procedures without.” The intent was to satisfy a kid when he had a minor cavity filled, and somehow it was deciphered as appropriate for an adult undergoing semi-invasive surgery. Don’t think it can happen among a group of professionals? Guess again. Upon discovering the problem, I was angry. I am still haunted by the memories of the pain, but mostly I’m mad at myself. I had every opportunity to protest, yell retreat and oppose the treatment that day, and I did none of it.

Why? The complete answer is probably more complex than my oversimplification of it, but my analysis concludes only one thing. I had been, and to a certain extent still am, conditioned to accept things, no matter how bad. If someone had told me they were planning to cut my mouth open and go at me with a grinder, I’d say not a chance. I’d fight back — hard. Yet in the hands of a “professional,” someone whose office was wallpapered with “look how great I am” degrees and certifications, I allowed them to cause me so much pain that I passed out.

So it prompted me to think further. What else was I trained to accept? The list was long and depressing, but at the same time revealing. Years ago, academic freedom translated into a healthy debate of issues, all sides being presented and considered. Now, a social media mob can get a person fired for simply offering a dissenting voice. Political views were also on the table for debate and discussion, some of it fiery and passionate, but out in the open. However, then and now, one side will be given the majority of airtime, the other little or none. A professional association might cover up the misconduct of a member simply because it’s easier to do nothing than to do what’s right, with the result that others will suffer at the hands of that doctor, HR practitioner, engineer, firefighter, or government official.

My converted thinking was probably good in the long run, so perhaps I should thank the macabre series of dental events and the participants. Since then, I’ve helped those who needed it to articulate their concerns, to fight the good fight, to objectively assess a situation. It hasn’t always worked out well, and most times things haven’t changed. However, there have been wins. Improvement takes time, and the most votes will usually go to the status quo. But nothing changes without a catalyst.

What are your blind spots? What have you been conditioned to accept without thought, that which may be detrimental yourself or others but which you do nonetheless? Should you keep doing it? Perhaps. Or maybe not. It’s tough to challenge and tougher still to keep at it. But without those that went before us we would be living under the tyranny of a feudal system. Without those among us who are willing to debate, think, consider and re-evaluate, we are worse off. And through our lack of action and debate, we may well be setting someone up for a future fall. Including ourselves.

So give it some thought. As the world around us shifts and stalls and when predictability has been replaced with uncertainty, there may never be a better time to get new thinking on the table. Your thoughts. Not hampered by convention or that most innovation-stifling “We’ve always done it that way” mantra.

So, after more than a decade, I’ll give dentistry another shot. On my terms this time.

Keith Sones is Executive Vice President, Strategy and Business Development, The Valard Group of Companies.

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