Let Inga Tell You: Down in the mouth



Like many people our age, Olof and I don’t have happy childhood memories of going to the dentist. Fillings were done without Novocaine and neither of us can hear the sound of a dentist drill without feeling pain, even if we have been rendered completely unconscious with anesthesia. Somehow, our bodies know.

But being responsible adults, we duly show up every six months for routine dental maintenance. In every article I’ve ever read about old people who were asked if there was anything they’d do differently, they all, to a one, said “Take better care of my teeth.”

I can say with some certainty, however, that if I predecease Olof, he will never willingly see a dentist again. A former Air Force pilot in a combat era, Olof was trained to survive behind enemy lines, withstand torture and eat bugs. All of which he would rather do than get his teeth cleaned.

When he returned from his first dental appointment after we married, he described the hygienist as a heavy-accented black-leather-clad German woman with big breasts who tied him to the dental chair and assaulted him orally with sharp instruments.

“Do you remember her name?” I said, puzzled. I’d been going to this practice for decades.

He thought for a minute. “Jenny, I think.”

“Jenny?” I said? “Blond Jenny who is 5’ 2” and has two tiny kids?”

So Olof cannot be counted on to be rationale — or accurate — about dentistry. But I make sure he goes anyway.

Unfortunately, our beloved dentist, who I’d be seeing since 1978, retired a couple of years ago, but the practice was taken over by a younger guy, “Dr. Smith,” whom we genuinely liked. And the entire staff stayed. Olof especially liked that Dr. Smith introduced wall-mounted monitors so that they could show you your X-rays and areas of concern instead of having to look in a little hand-held mirror. Olof loves tech-y stuff.

So I was surprised when I showed up for my 6-month teeth cleaning recently to discover my long-time hygienist gone and replaced by someone I will call Ashley-Sue. After she insisted on X-rays (I reluctantly conceded), she began cleaning my teeth with an instrument called a Cavatron that not only sounded waaaay too much like dentist drills of old but actually hurt my teeth. I admit it, I have really sensitive teeth. Erin, my old hygienist, always did this by hand.

Ashley-Sue was surprised that I had never seen a Cavatron before. “It really is SO much better at cleaning teeth and especially getting into all those spaces between them,” she noted, repeatedly, once my mouth was open and I couldn’t talk back.

While I had zero pain anywhere in my mouth when I came in, Ashley-Sue was finding problems galore. “I see a pocket between these two teeth,” she noted with furrowed brow, adding brightly, “but we can fix it easily by replacing the crown.”

“Urgglslsle?” I said. (Her hands were in my mouth.) In my experience, there is no “easily” — or cheaply — in replacing a crown.

“We’ll also need to do a deep cleaning in several areas,” she added. I’ve never had one of those before either.

“By the way,” I said once I had the chance, “you know not to spray cold water directly on my teeth, right?”

“I’ll make a note of that,” said Ashley-Sue, who subsequently sprayed cold water directly on my teeth three times.

This was starting to feel like The Twilight Zone. “Don’t you have my chart?” I inquired finally.

“We’ve gone completely digital,” said Ashley-Sue. Thirty-nine years of X-rays have gone wherever paper records go to die along with a chart that says DO NOT SPRAY COLD WATER ON THIS WOMAN’S TEETH.

When she was done with the cleaning, she went to summon the dentist, who I instantly noted was not Dr. Smith. But a genuinely nice guy. He and Ashley-Sue concurred that deep cleanings (under anesthesia) and a new crown were absolutely in order.

This was a dilemma. I am very prevention-oriented, and if my former dentist recommended something, I always did it. Definitely don’t want to mess with my teeth. But suddenly I was having a déjà vu to car shopping.

“Actually,” I said, apologetically, “the holidays are coming up, my mouth feels great so I am just going to schedule my next teeth cleaning at this time.”

But no appointment could be made until someone named Bev insisted I review my three-visit treatment plan (which included charges for not-covered-by-insurance “laser curettage”) and sign a form that I was refusing it, with the implication that I was opting for my teeth to fall out of my head instead.

On my way out, I stopped at the front desk. Turns out Dr. Smith was no longer with the practice, now under new management. (Did I miss an e-mail?) I’m not, however, missing a second opinion.

Inga’s lighthearted looks at life appear regularly in La Jolla Light. Reach her at