A special kind of patient leaves his mark on an office
by Suzanne Hubbard, RDH
I’ll never forget the first time I met Dan Funk. I happened to be waiting at the front desk for him, my new patient, when this very tall man who had to duck under the door to get in arrived. At 6’5”, weighing no more than I’d guess 170 pounds, Dan came in with a huge grin. “I can’t wait to get my teeth cleaned, I love getting my teeth cleaned!” His loud and infectious voice drew patients’ eyes from their magazines to his exuberant commotion.
Our office waiting room was filled with people that day. On most days the room is silent because of the possibly unnerving procedures that lay ahead. But not when Dan walked in the room. The people around him giggled at his comment, and people were immediately drawn to him. He struck up a conversation with those around him and barely got his new paperwork completed. Knowing what I know about Dan now, I think it was a ploy to allay people’s fears.
As I introduced myself, I shook his hand and made eye contact with him. As I talked with him, it was hard to keep focused on his eyes because an old scar made its way from the top of his forehead down to his nose. Tiny stitch scars painted a picture of a medical past. Bringing him back to the operatory, he kept saying, “I love getting my teeth cleaned!” I was thinking, “I love this guy!” How many times do I hear, “I hate getting my teeth cleaned”?
As we made small talk, Dan shared how much he enjoyed his previous dentist in McPherson, Kan., and asked if we had lasers, if we could measure his recession because he remembered the numbers from last time, and if we could… This guy was a talker, and I was amazed at his dental knowledge. He knew a lot. When I asked him how he knew so much, he said that his previous dental hygienist was excellent and explained everything, and that he also read dental journals. I know that is not all he read because he was well versed in many areas.
Another area Dan was well versed in was his health. As he pointed to his head, he stated, “metastatic melanoma.” When it came to discussing his medical history, I could not write fast enough all the medications, procedures, and clinical trials this man had endured the past two years. He explained the tumors in his head and the small ones in his lungs. Like a soldier wounded in battle, Dan began to point to each scar explaining when, where, and how, yet laughing all the way through it. It wasn’t a nervous laugh, but there was true joy behind each presentation of a scar.
“I’m still here, I’m still alive, and I still have a lot to accomplish,” he said. Our meeting that day was like no other I had experienced. Dan was so full of life, filled with spunk, a quick wit, and puns to boot. He was alive and fresh and a joy to have in my chair. For each of his subsequent visits, I watched my schedule in eager anticipation for the privilege of serving him. Each time he came in, we talked about something new he’d learned about the dental field from his dental journal. He was a walking Consumer Reports, but knew what he was talking about. A smart man in his own right, Dan kept me polished and energized, and gave me a fresh perspective on life.
So it startled me when Dan came in for his three-month recall to see a fresh five-inch incision neatly held together with 15 staples. The previous scars were several years old, and from seeing him consistently over the past two years, I thought his medical health was stable. “This one,” Dan pointed to the incision, “is three days old.” He explained that more tumors had emerged and it was affecting his ability to drive. “I nearly ran my truck off the road.” It was hard to see such a vibrant and intelligent man of 60 being stripped of his independence. But here he was still laughing, loud, and as boisterous and fun as ever. That day all I could think of was … metastatic.
When I saw Dan’s name in my schedule for a recall, it was a bittersweet feeling — I was eager to see him, yet afraid to see him at the same time. Waiting in the room was Dan, still laughing, but the tumor had robbed his ability to pronounce words effectively. His gait was off, and he held my arm as we walked down the hall. He tried desperately to talk, but the words just came out jumbled. Our usual conversation of dentistry, family, his puns, and Ford trucks was now marked by silence. Ironically, it was the same silence that Dan had first walked into as he made his way through our doors as a new patient. Although his bright eyes and big grin remained, I knew there was not much time. As we walked down the hall to check out, I realized that most likely this would be the last time that I would see Dan. I gently rubbed his back, and said goodbye. Dan passed away two months later.
Dan taught me something over the years while I was privileged to serve him. We consistently give as dental hygienists, while serving the needs of our patients day in and day out, and we can become focused on the giving aspect. I received something from Dan, and that was the ability to see life as a gift, not a grind. Like a speedboat that leaves a wake, Dan left an emotional wake, an indelible mark for all those he touched — the gift of life, the ability to laugh, the desire to profoundly inspire others, and the joy found in a silly pun.
Dan’s passing was difficult, and it left me depressed for several weeks. My dentist came to me shortly after his death and said, “I’m so sorry you’re in such a funk!” Although the dentist didn’t realize what he had just said, I snickered and thought to myself, Dan is still here. Dan would have appreciated the pun using his name. I’ll never forget the first time I met Dan Funk. Rest in peace, Dan. 2-14-1948 to 7-31-2011
Suzanne Hubbard, RDH, works in Greeley, Colo., at Greeley Dental Health Centers.
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