Observations from a Dentist’s Chair

This morning I went to a new dentist. The dentist’s assistant got me into the chair in a state-of-the-art room. I was bibbed for the procedure, and then stretched out horizontally so I could watch the television mounted in the ceiling. Then the dentist came into the room.

As they made further preparations, they talked to one another across my reclining body . As it happened, the big news of the day was the Navy Seals’ slaying of Usama Bin Laden in Pakistan. Their animated discussion went like this: “Do you think they really got him?” “Why the funeral and burial at sea?” “Had they collected DNA samples?” It was a running conversation carried on as though I didn’t exist.

I’ve had this experience in other settings. For example, a teen aged employee at a fast food restaurant talks in an uninterrupted stream to another employee as she fills my order and makes the change. Just as with the dentist and his assistant, it is as though I’m a thing being serviced, not a person.

My wife had a cataract removed in a clinic dedicated exclusively to cataract surgery. Her turn came at three on a Friday afternoon. While the two doctors wheeled her into position and prepared to operate they talked to each other, as though my wife was not there.

She heard them saying, “Let’s hurry and get this done so we can get out of here early.” My generally-quiet wife, though slightly tranquilized, spoke up. Pleasantly she said, “I’ve heard that you should never have a surgery on Friday afternoon because the surgeons and other personnel are in a hurry to get home.” She was the last patient on that day, and this feeling of haste was in the air in the clinic.

There was silence. The lead surgeon then came around to my wife’s head and quietly and with warmth assured her that she would be well taken care of. And she was.

I’m not suggesting this sort of “forgetting” is common. But in the best of possible worlds it should never happen, because it breaks a fundamental rule in any institution: The individual being served is a “person” and that person is the major reason the other persons are there. This fact should manifest itself in every exchange.

None of us reaches the standard at all times. We forget. We slip, due to preoccupation or fatigue. But my morning at the dentist redoubles my commitment to respect appropriately persons I see in every circumstance of life. This morning’s reminder is going to keep me stretching.

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3 thoughts on “Observations from a Dentist’s Chair

  1. I accompanied a friend yesterday to eye surgery for moral support and things had been backed up. When the doctor saw her, he acknowledged us and talked to us, but went on about how long a day it had been and that he’s so tired he can’t even speak right and just settled for saying the wrong room numbers and such. These are not the words you want to hear even before a fairly simply in-out surgery. He seemed to do a good job in the end though.

  2. Your point is well taken. When mother was well along in her eighties, I took her to a cardiologist who continually talked to me about her. Mother finally addressed the doctor and said, “Please look at ME and talk to ME.” I hope he learned from that and was more respectful to future patients.

    We hope you are well. Tell Kay we are enjoying her pie crust (I have made four pies since coming home) and her roast beef recipe. We miss you both.


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