Friday, November 6, 2009

Parkinson's and the Dentist's Chair

Going to the dentist is just one of those necessary regular visits I must make that increases the visibility of my Parkinson's symptoms. It confirms that I have to keep my sense of humor.

It was quite obvious that neither Michelle nor Dr. Ray looked anything like Dr. Inkster, my dentist when I was 8. And little about this morning's current surroundings bore any resemblance to the second storey walk-up office with its brass plate announcing that the tiny waiting room belonged to Dr. J.F. Inkster, D.D.S. Inside there wasn’t a single magazine a kid could read to calm his jangled nerves. In comparison, Dr. Ray's office was bright and modern with an open airy feel, no internal doors (except for the bathroom), skylights and large windows with a street level view. Hundreds of magazines from Reader's Digest to Golfer's Digest waited in his spacious waiting room that had a special corner dedicated to kids.  The sights, smells and sounds of dentistry have changed dramatically in the past 50 years.

Despite the changes, I still suffer from dentophobia. I shake when I sit in what always seemed to me to be a converted barber chair, staring into a light that could do double duty at Yankee Stadium. The flow of adrenalin always accelerates as I get elevated and reclined at the same time, and then told to "relax and open wide". The major difference between my childhood experiences with the dentist and present is that I don't know if I am trembling out of fear any longer or just because of my Parkinson's Disease. Maybe it is both.

Despite the easy conversation skills of both my young dental hygienist and dentist (do they learn that in school?), I am still totally unable to control my tremors. My right arm jerks like that of a marionette controlled by a hidden puppet master. It is more than a little awkward sitting on your right hand when you are lying down in the grip of a sculptured lounger. My right leg immediately gets as stiff as a mannequin's, with my foot looking pointed as if it was caught stretching out the Achilles tendon. I try to relax. Michelle is more than patient as she checks and cleans my teeth. But try as I might, I return to my stiffened and vibrating condition within moments.

Dr. Inkster had a humorless disposition and could not carry on a conversation with an 8-year-old to save his bicuspids.  Despite the open window an ether-like odor permeated his old dental office. To compound matters, Dr. Inkster did not wear a mask.  A kid didn't have a fighting chance against his smoker-stained breath. Surely a dentist would know what it is like for me to be forced to breathe in (through the nose due to various paraphernalia occupying my other breathing orifice) someone's halitosis emitted from yellow stained teeth for what seemed like several hours. It was hard to hold my breath that long. Despite my impaired ability to smell, I would not notice anyone's bad breath even assuming they have any, I do catch a whiff of the peppermint goo Michele puts in trays in which my teeth take their fluoride bath. But the scent is not enough to compensate for the feeling that I am slowly drowning when the sludge starts draining down my throat as I accidentally squish my teeth together.

Evaluating the situaion, I think it is the high-pitched jet engine whir and whine of those dental instruments of torture that bring back my terror and set off my tremors each time I enter a dentist's office. In some ways, not many, it is worse now than in Dr. Inkster’s office. In the old days, the dentist would remove the instruments from your mouth long enough to allow you to breathe and lean over to spit into the white, round porcelain, permanently flushing spittoon. Nowadays, no sooner do they remove one set of tools from my mouth than they are replaced by a small but powerful replica fire hose squirting high-pressure water point blank onto totally sensitized teeth. When it gets pulled out a small chrome wet/dry vac takes its place, attached no doubt to some 250 hp suction-producing motor in the other room. I feel a desperate need to swallow or somehow hide my tongue lest it be sucked out or given a hickey on its vulnerable surface. It always strikes me as comical when some well-meaning dental assistant notices my vice-like grip on the chair arms and asks, "Are you doing okay?" I want to respond, "Oh yes, I could only be doing better if this were a day spa and I was having my toenails sheared off by a hammer and chisel.”

Michelle and Dr. Ray cannot help it if I become a paranoid schizophrenic upon walking into an instrument-laden cubicle with a chair that seems to only be missing its chest, waist and leg straps. It brings back vivid memories of Dr. Inkster leaning over me with a needle that was probably used for horses during the off hours and saying, "This will only be a small prick in your cheek ". After extracting the weapon from my mouth, wiping what seemed like blood from its tip with an already stained patch of gauze, he would go right to work as if the elixir he had pumped into my then throbbing jaw was somehow doing its numbing work instantly. Of course, I complained incessantly, as much as was possible with my mouth agape. But he was unyielding and refused to recognize that I was feeling every bit of the grinding, scraping and drilling he was so studiously undertaking on my defenseless molars.

Upon reflection, I am confident that the fear-based shaking I did as a kid when faced with the dental punishment for not brushing my teeth and eating too many toffee bars was just as pronounced as my tremors are now. Except that now Michele says I save her some effort as she can virtually hold the cleaning tools still as my head does the moving for her. She comments that I don't need an electric toothbrus.  I respond by saying, "True, but could you make sure you give me a left-handed toothbrush when we are finished. I am wearing the enamel off my teeth brushing with my vibrating right-handed one."

Now about the challenge of flossing...


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