PUMPING IRONY: Open Wide

Research showing the importance of treating gum disease has forced me to overcome a long-held fear of dentists.

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I am what used to be called “long in the tooth.” It’s a genetic trait passed down to me by my mother, whose gums receded faster than my dad’s hairline during her middle-age years. And it requires that I visit the dentist more often than I would prefer.

This aversion to dentistry is not my mother’s fault, to be fair. It’s all about the many ways an impressionable child responded to ordinary circumstances. And not flossing.

A trip to the dentist in my youth was a bit of an ordeal, whether there were cavities to be filled or not. Mom didn’t drive, so the journey from our inner-ring suburb to the dentist’s office in the city began by catching a bus on the two-lane highway at the end of our street that eventually deposited us at a bustling intersection in the heart of Northeast Minneapolis. That was followed by a trek of several blocks that took us past the Northwestern Casket Company, where my lively imagination never failed to invent some dark scenario involving grave-diggers, kidnappers, and children who had been punishing their molars and neglecting their bicuspids.

Dr. Larson’s office occupied a collection of musty rooms above a nondescript corner storefront on Washington Street. It smelled of disinfectant and despair. The surly receptionist, Margaret, dictated the terms of engagement in the stuffy waiting room, and I figured out early on that she was probably in cahoots with the casket-makers up the street. Mom was often surprised by my exemplary behavior.

Dental hygienists had not yet been invented, so Dr. Larson handled everything from cleaning and filling to pulling and lecturing. His approach was neither cautious nor particularly compassionate, and the tools he employed always struck me as slightly medieval. I seldom left his chair without a cheek full of Novocain and a visceral fear of returning.

Those fears have gradually dissipated over the years, which I appreciate, because researchers have been uncovering the disturbing link between bad teeth and bad health — especially among geezers like me.

Discovering Holistic Dentistry

I first made the connection a few years ago while editing an EL piece on holistic dentistry. It explained how inflammation triggered by periodontitis and other gum disorders can spread to various parts of the body, creating chronic illnesses. More recently, a study published in the European Journal of Neurology suggested that those suffering from periodontal issues — a common affliction among the elderly — have four times the risk of suffering a stroke than folks with healthy gum tissue.

I’m not a big fan of fear-based medicine, but this sort of thing tends to get my attention. So when it became clear that my own case of periodontitis was not improving with semi-annual visits to my holistic dentist (I long ago abandoned Dr. Larson), I took his advice and scheduled a good cleaning every three months. The alternative, in my view, had less to do with the possibility of succumbing to a fatal stroke than the imminent need for oral surgery.

That was more than three years ago, and when I left the dentist’s office last week, the prognosis was excellent. “Just keep doing what you’re doing,” my cheery hygienist said as I eased myself out of the chair, my heart rate decelerating on cue.

We’ve never really discussed my irrational fear of dentists; it’s a topic more suited to a therapist’s couch. So I simply thanked her and headed out the door. But I couldn’t help thinking about old Dr. Larson, which made me smile. No Novocain, no problem.

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