Dental Office Wisdom —by Jinny Batterson
The realization that I’m aging gets brought home to me each time a medical professional who formerly helped take care of me retires (or, worse, dies). By now I’ve been through at least four primary care doctors and an equal number of specialists and dentists. As a cranky older patient, I balk some at new technology, increasing intrusions on my privacy, seemingly endless medical history and insurance forms, frequent changes in practices and practitioners.
The office where I’m most vulnerable is the dentist’s—registering a complaint is nearly impossible when one’s mouth is filled with dental instruments. As a child, I dreaded going to get my teeth checked—I nearly always had one or more cavities that needed filling. The sound of a dentist’s drill remains one of my least favorite sounds. My dread diminished as I grew up. By the time I left home for college, all of my teeth were healthy and/or filled.
In young adulthood, I encountered my favorite dentist while living in Richmond, Virginia starting in the early 1970’s. I used to get twice-yearly checkups at his home office. I found his practice by walking past it. Because for our first few years in Richmond, my husband and I shared a single vehicle and my automotive access was skimpy and sporadic, I did my best to find ways to limit my needs for private transportation. We lived on a bus line that serviced the downtown office where I worked. That helped. There was a small grocery store near enough to walk to, a couple of restaurants and a custom butcher shop within a three block radius.
One day as I was lugging bags back home from the grocery, I noticed a small metal sign at the edge of the sidewalk: “Alec Epstein, DDS.” The sign hung above a short set of steps leading to a two-story brick house that looked much like the other houses in our older mixed neighborhood of individual homes, small shops, and two or three story apartment buildings and offices.
It had been a while since my previous dental check-up. Such a convenient location beckoned. Later I checked it out. Walking in, I met Dr. Epstein directly—no receptionist, a rather bare waiting room. Just visible through an archway was an examination room with a single dentist’s chair. I set up a tentative appointment for the following week on a day when I knew my supervisor would be on vacation and my workload would be lighter than usual.
Over the years that I went to Dr. Epstein, he never had a hygienist or an assistant. He kept records by hand in manila folders. After my first appointment, he always had my up-to-date chart at the ready when I came in. He’d greet me by name and usher me into the examination room, giving me time to settle into the worn leather dental chair while he reviewed my recent dental history.
“Any problems?” he’d ask before he began looking into my mouth.
Once in a while I’d need a replacement filling or a new one. If anything really complicated was required, he’d refer me to the dental school at the nearby Medical College of Virginia. His fees were amazingly reasonable. On one wall beside the dental chair he’d hung a framed certificate of his dental school diploma from 1940.
In front of the dentist’s chair, high up on the wall to be visible to a patient tipped back during an exam, he’d put photocopies of two cartoons. One showed a pate nearly as shiny as his own, with the caption “God only made a few perfect heads. The rest he put hair on.”
The other, well before the days of the internet or “The Simpsons” TV show, pictured a rough-looking kid of ten or so, spiky hair sticking up in all directions. “I know I’m somebody,” this proto-Bart snarled, “‘cause God don’t make no junk.”
It’s been over thirty years since I last saw Dr. Epstein. According to the obituary I was able to find via internet, he continued seeing some patients until he was past 90, and was only “fully retired” for about six months before heart disease claimed him. He was widely respected in the community for his skill and his service.
Now that we have an internet and instagram and all sorts of ways of spreading words and images at light speed, the “no junk” cartoon has become hackneyed, but I think its message remains important. From time to time, all of us, from spiky-haired kids to amazingly accomplished former First Lady Michelle Obama, have doubts about whether or not we’re good enough. All of us need the reminder from Dr. Epstein’s office wall: “I know I’m somebody, ‘cause God don’t make no junk.”