Saturday, September 01, 2012

Tooth and nail

Dentists never made me nervous until I had children.

And not even then. It took three years – the time most physicians were recommending children have their first dental checkup – to learn what I should have been worried about all along.

“Wait. What?

“Seven cavities?”

“Maybe eight. We won't know until we get in there.”

I was stunned.

My preschool child had a mouthful of cavities and would need to be sedated in order to treat them, a trend the Center for Disease Control had noticed was on the rise for the first time in four decades.

In one single office visit I had become a shameful statistic.

According to the New York Times in an article published last spring, the reasons for this rise (despite the rate of decay and tooth loss in adults and teens decreasing consistently during the same timeframe) isn't new but a growing problem, which involves constant snacking, more sugar in foods, extended bottle or breast feeding (especially at night), lack of fluoride in water and a lack of awareness of when children should be examined by a dentist.

Oh sure …

Our dentist was compassionate. She tried to soothe my guilty mind, telling me this wasn't my fault, but I knew if a reporter had called her for a quote that day, my face would appear in her mind as she was describing all the anonymous mothers who showed up in her office with a child suffering from a preventable condition.

In my own mind, I was just another mother who didn't pick the right battle. Who didn't even know there was a war raging right under her child's nose.

After all, my mother never seemed to worry about my teeth. I brushed. Visited the dentist twice a year. Thought about flossing more than I actually flossed, but my dental health was mostly uneventful.

She always spoke about the one cavity I had during my preschool years as if it were the key to some dental health mystery that to this day has remained unsolved. With a hint of theatrical flair she'd tell the story of the strange hole that had appeared on an incisor in a location the dentist thought should have virtually cleaned itself.

It was such a marvel the doctor insisted, and my mother agreed, that a photo of my grimacing, over-stretched mouth should be sent to a national dental journal for consideration.

My first published work might have been an enamel blemish no one could explain.

But it ended there. There was no scientific interest, and no more cavities appeared for another two decades, when, during my college days, I began imbibing calorie-free seltzer waters. Two pin-prick sized holes in a left molar was the result, according to my dentist, who suggested I switch back to tap water.

It did the trick.

Look ma: no more cavities.

Perhaps it was this miracle of fortune. My strangely stain resistant teeth -- despite the sugar, tobacco and coffee consumption in my youthful ignorance – that made me think my children would similarly luck out.

If only they had.

They just inherited me … a person who took their pearly whites for granted.

If only I could turn back time.

Instead, I spend the night before each twice-annual visit tossing and turning and punching pillows. Frazzled and baggy-eyed, I usually sit in the examination room visibly uncomfortable. I cross and uncross my legs. I set my hands as claws and dig my nails into my knees as the doctor leans over my daughter's overstretched mouth, dictating for the permanent record a string of terms I can barely understand:

She pairs words like occlusion, cross bite, erupted and blocked out with a number or letter as she examines each tooth carefully. I wait on the edge of my chair for words that sound like they require immediate intervention and wheelbarrows full of cash.

She smiles.

“Look, ma: No cavities.”

I release the grip on my knees and exhale.

“See you again in six months.”

I'll be holding my breath.

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