If in the past someone had told me that one day I wouldn’t mind at all going to the dentist, I would have laughed and added, “Not a chance!” It seems I’ve been severely dentophobic (fearful of visiting the dentist) most of my life — with good reason, I feel. It’s taken a lot to change that, but here in San Miguel de Allende it appears I have.
First, some history. A few, vivid, dentist-related horror stories come to mind:
I must have been about three, sitting quietly (“like a good girl,” as my mother had instructed) in the otherwise empty waiting room of my mother’s dentist’s office in northern New Jersey, keeping watch over my sleeping baby sister in her stroller, while my mother was in the dentist’s chair behind the closed door.
I heard the dentist’s loud drill. I heard my mother cry out in pain, then whimper as the loud whirring drilling continued. I felt helpless and alone. I wanted to rescue my mother from her torturer somehow, but I knew I couldn’t abandon my sleeping sister. And, besides, the handle to the door that would lead me to where my mother was, was too high for me to reach.
Not long after this, at the dinner table one night, I heard my parents say that that dentist’s wife had committed suicide – she’d hung herself in their home. Oddly, I wasn’t surprised. Dentists, I thought at the time, were torturers.
Later, when I was in grammar school, the dentist I had to see in our town was a drinking buddy of my father’s. His office was near my school, so when necessary I went alone to see him after class on my way home. He was a large and gruff man who smelled of booze and had no patience for children, especially nervous, squirming kids like me. He waved the drill in front of my face like a weapon and shouted at me to sit still or else he’d strap me to the chair.
That dentist told me if I didn’t brush my teeth three times a day (“carry a toothbrush with you at all times!”) I’d have false teeth (“like an old lady”) by the time I turned twenty. So I became a devout teeth-brusher, in the hopes that I’d succeed in avoiding dentist visits forevermore.
Much later, when I lived in New York, I needed a lot of long overdue dental work done, but I stubbornly refused to endure any dentist’s drill. The sound of the drill, the sight of it, the feel of it jangling every cell in my brain, terrified me; and no amount of Novocaine would suffice to quell my fears. I used to say to friends, only half-jokingly, that I’d rather stand before a firing squad than sit in a dentist’s chair. I later learned that I wasn’t alone in this; an estimated 2.7 percent of men and 4.6 percent of women have dentophobia.
So I found a dentist near where I was living then in the City who would give me gas to knock me totally out for the duration of the dental procedures I needed. I visited him several times without mishap, until one day when I came to from the gas I found his hand deeply under my blouse. I never went back to him, and I did nothing about this incident. But I subsequently learned that another of his female patients took him to court; he lost his license and went to prison.
The well-regarded woman dentist whom I saw when I lived in Taos, New Mexico, was also willing to give me gas. She brought her little white fluffy dog – named Chewy — to her office, and the dog’s job was to comfort and entertain her patients. But the costs of the work I needed done came to many thousands of dollars, so visiting her long-term became prohibitive.
Fast forward to my current life now as an American retiree living on Social Security here in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
Last year a dear friend here referred me to a young Mexican dentist, named Hugo Nieto (40 years old), whom I’ve come to love and can’t speak highly enough of. He has quelled my fears. He is kind (as most Mexicans are, in my experience) and gentle-yet-strong (a winning combination in a man, in my opinion), extremely competent and intelligent, and genuinely caring. It seems he understands my dentophobia (perhaps he studied this phenomenon in dental school?), and he treats me with great respect (as most young Mexicans are raised to treat older people).
He explains – in words and pictures, drawing on his white board, and showing my teeth-photos and ex-rays on the large screen on his wall – every procedure, step by step, as if I were an intelligent person who has the right to know what’s happening. He takes his time with me, never rushing. He calls me by name.
He apologizes when I flinch a bit. “Sorry, Bonnie,” he says softly, as if to say, I’m not here to hurt you. I feel a strong urge to hug him.
And, as an added bonus, his fees are affordable for me. Last year I had an old, broken bridge replaced by a three-tooth implant, and the cost came to a small fraction of what it would have cost in the United States.
So now, when I have a dental issue – such as an old filling that fell out last month – I’m no longer afraid to visit the dentist. I look forward to seeing “my” Doctor Hugo again and being made to feel special, understood, and cared-for. If only all dentists everywhere could do the same for everyone.