Those Tasmanian Devils

Feb. 1, 1999
Life is never dull in the fast lane of the hygiene operatory. The entertainment starts with the upside down view of the first patient...

Life is never dull in the fast lane of the hygiene operatory. The entertainment starts with the upside down view of the first patient...

Cathy Hester Seckman, RDH

Just when you think dental hygiene might be the least exciting profession in the world, you push the automatic recline button on the chair and the first patient of the morning lands on her head.

"Omigosh!" I cried, frantically stabbing buttons. "Sit up! Sit up!" The operatory chair continued its inexorable progress downward (at the head) and upward (at the foot). Sandy, the first patient, struggled like a beached fish, trying to sit up as her legs waved helplessly in the air. I finally found the right button and the chair reversed direction, going upward (at the head) and downward (at the foot). Sandy gasped, tugged at her skirt and scrambled out of the chair.

"What," she said breathlessly, "was that?"

"The Tasmanian devils," I sighed. "I`m sorry. I should have thought to check."

"Devils?" she repeated blankly. "Check what?"

"Come around here," I invited, scooting backward on my stool. "See these dials behind the chair?"

"They`re all set on nine," she said, the light beginning to dawn.

"Uh huh. My last patient yesterday brought her three kids with her. Their babysitter didn`t show up. While I was cleaning her teeth, they were whirling around here like little blonde dervishes. One of them must have cranked all these dials over to max."

"Tasmanian devils," Sandy giggled. "Tell you what. You reset those dials and put the chair back ... then, I`ll sit down."

So I did, and she did, and the day went on as scheduled.

And people think dentistry is boring. It`s not boring; it`s a laugh a minute. One of the things I`ve always liked about dental offices is the steady stream of people coming in and going out. It`s a never-ending parade. Patients entertain me all day long.

For example, Kyle came in at the beginning of autumn, when leaves fall and tans fade.

"What have you been doing with yourself this summer?" I asked him.

"I play outside all day long," Kyle boasted. "I don`t care if it`s hot; the sun doesn`t bother me. See, I got a really good suntan just from playing. My mom went to the tanning bed, but I didn`t have to. I got mine from the real sun." He showed off his brown legs.

"Boy, you sure did," I commented.

"But you can`t tell how tan I am just from my legs. If I pull down my pants a little bit, it`s easier to see. My butt`s really, really white."

"I believe you," I said hastily. "Sit back now, Kyle; we`re on a tight schedule."

Sometimes, in-between complaints, the kids teach me things they learned in school.

"Oh, man, not that again!" 12-year-old Scott groaned when I pulled out the X-ray head. "Jeez, I hate getting my teeth cleaned!" he whined when I opened a pack of instruments. "Cripes, this is the worst part!" he groused when a fluoride tray appeared. "Do I hafta do this?"

"You`re just a regular little ray of sunshine, aren`t you?" I said. To take his mind off his troubles, I asked about school.

"What are you going to do when you go back this afternoon?"

Scott brightened up a little. "Today`s Thursday, ain`t it?"

"All day," I replied.

"Then it`s mini-class day."

"I give up," I said. "What are those?"

He wiggled around in the chair and pulled his hands out of his pockets, where they had been stuffed angrily in protest. "We go through a whole buncha these short classes. We have metal shop, wood shop, sewing, cooking, arts and crafts, health, music, mechanical drawing, . . ."

I was fascinated. "And everyone in your class takes every one of these courses?"


"When I was in school," I said, feeling very old, "those kinds of classes were segregated."

"What`s segregated?"

"It means separated," I said, pushing my hands apart. "Only the boys went to shop classes, and only the girls took sewing and cooking."

Scott screwed up his face. "That`s kinda dumb. What if you`re a guy and a button falls off your shirt? What if you`re a housewife and your house breaks down?"

I couldn`t argue with his logic. "You`re right. It was kinda dumb."

The stories these young people tell about school provide me with lots of entertainment. A college-bound teenager comes to mind. I found Laurie, an incoming freshman, sitting cross-legged on the waiting room floor one August afternoon. She was paging frantically through a student handbook.

"I have an interview this afternoon with some guy about class schedules, and I can`t remember his name!" she moaned. "It`s got to be in this book somewhere!"

"Just walk in the office," I suggested, "and tell them you have an appointment with the scheduler. They`ll know who you mean."

Laurie moaned again. "I hope so. Oh, this is all going so badly. Everything`s a mess. I don`t even have a dorm room yet, and classes start Monday."

"They took your money," I said. "They`ll have to find you a room. You`ll see. Everything will fall into place."

"No, it won`t; it can`t," she wailed, covering her face with her hands. "Oh why did I have to leave high school!?"

At Christmas time, Laurie was back to have her wisdom teeth out.

"How`s school going?" I asked.

She was starry-eyed. "I made the Dean`s List! My French class is going on a ski trip! I have a new boyfriend!"

I grinned. "Better than high school after all, isn`t it?"

She looked blank. "High school? I can`t even remember high school it was so long ago! Was I ever that young?"

A patient doesn`t have to be young to amaze me and make the day interesting. Not long ago, one of our most fascinating patients came in for a checkup. Karen looks like a supermodel who has accidentally stepped into the real world for a look around. As if the face, the hair, the body, and the clothes weren`t enough, she`s also a professor at a local university.

In other words, she`s so perfect, you can`t even be jealous! All you can do is look at her, then look down at your frumpy, lumpy, boring self, and sigh. We talked about careers.

"I`m burned out with teaching," Karen said. "It seems like I`ve been grading papers forever. (She`s 32.) I want to be one of those people who changes careers in mid-stream."

She pursed her perfect, bee-stung, Chanel-covered lips and considered my career. "I couldn`t have a job in dentistry," she decided. "No offense, but putting your hands in people`s mouths is just too -"

"Gross," I finished. "You can say it. We hear it every day."

She laughed, sounding like wind chimes on a summer day. "I was going to say personal. I couldn`t be a physician, either."

"Now that`s gross," I agreed, "but some people love it. Everyone has their own limits for what they can and can`t do. I don`t think I could be a teacher."

"Why not?"

"Well, college-level, maybe. High school level, just possibly. But no one could pay me enough to work in an elementary school."

"Oh, but kids are so cute!" Karen said. "Wouldn`t you love to teach a child to read?"

"Picture that same child," I said, "the day after Christmas break, when he`s had way too much chocolate and is starting to get the flu."

"Oh," she said. She looked down at her perfectly manicured hands. Tastefully small, gold starbursts were painted on each deep maroon nail. "I wouldn`t want a job that was - well - messy."

Karen tossed her smoky black hair and shrugged one elegant, silk-clad shoulder. "I`ve always wanted to be a librarian," she confessed. "I think what stopped me is that stereotype of the old maid with cat`s-eye glasses and a cardigan sweater."

"You couldn`t look like that if you tried," I responded.

She shook her head abstractedly. "Probably not. I want to pick up some courses in library science, anyway, maybe work on another degree. I think it`ll be really interesting. And I`m going to take a master`s level French class next semester. Maybe that will lead to something."

Master`s level French, I thought. It figures. I can`t even remember how to count to 10. Un, deux, trois, quatre - oh, forget it!

"It sounds like you`ve made some New Year`s resolutions," I said. "Ninety-nine should be a good year for you."

She smiled. "I really need to make one more resolution, too." She brushed a hand irritably over an infinitesimal snag at the hem of her skirt. "If I don`t do anything else this year, I have to upgrade my wardrobe. These clothes are a mess."

I looked down at my frumpy scrub suit - the pink one with the Clorox stain on the side of one leg and the missing shirt-pocket button.

"I know what you mean," I sighed.

Even if the patients fail to provide entertainment, you always have your co-workers. My office is filled with baseball fans. Given a choice, I`d rather watch paint dry, but they all love it. Back in `97, the Cleveland Indians were within spitting distance of winning the World Series. Co-workers started showing up wearing Indians pins, Indians coats, and even Indians socks. They hung Chief Wahoo over the front desk. They spent hours on the phone, angling for tickets. Failing that, they raced for the door at quitting time, eager to get home to the TV.

"Game tonight!" Bill yelled at me. "You gonna watch?"

"Darn it, no," I replied with a suitably discouraged tone of voice. "I have to go home and watch some paint dry."

Another night we were working late and the game was on the radio. Everyone - well, almost everyone - listened avidly. I did try to participate ... once.

"What`s the score?" I asked brightly.

"Zero," Chris said disconsolately. "No one`s scored yet."

"But I just heard it`s the bottom of the fifth. You mean you`ve been listening all this time and no one`s made a point yet?"

"A run, Cathy, it`s called a run. Try and keep up, OK?"

Rosemarie saved her game tickets. She even bought a special plastic protector sleeve. One patient told me she framed her ticket from the second World Series game, and was hoping to get at least one more ticket to hang alongside it on the family room wall.

"I don`t get it," I said to Rosemarie. "Why are these tickets so important?"

"They`re worth a lot of money!" she said. "A 1904 World Series ticket is worth $1,500."

"So that means you only have to wait a hundred years for your ticket to be worth big bucks?"

"Well ... yeah."

No, we`re never bored. Between baseball games and Tasmanian devils and pint-sized exhibitionists, we manage to have a good time. Dentistry is a serious business, filled with difficult decisions and heavy responsibilities; but, that doesn`t mean we can`t have a little fun along the way!

Cathy Seckman, RDH, is a frequent contributor to RDH. She is based in Calcutta, Ohio.