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A New Article is Live: Take the Scare Out of Dental Care

  • Posted on March 9, 2012 at 8:00 AM

It’s great when you get to write from a position of authority and learn at the same time.  If you’re struggling with providing your children with a positive dental experience, then please check out my article, Take the Scare Out of Dental Care, published in MetroKids.

Thanks!  And enjoy!



  • Posted on May 15, 2010 at 10:00 PM

Executive Summary:  Alex dislikes dental work.  I believe in empowering patients to make choices regarding their own dental care.  Yet, I do not allow Alex to refuse dental care.  The difference is that care is being sought for my child’s benefit, and not my convenience.

The waiting room was okay.  Alex bounded from spot to spot, reading as many words as he could find.  Then, the dental assistant came.  We talked for a few moments.  When it was time to go into the back I called Alex to me, but he didn’t come.  I took him by the hand.  He walked with me and stopped a few paces in front of the door.  I tugged gently on his hand, an act that was more communication then force.  He looked at me, and took just enough steps forward so he was inside the door.  The door closed behind him.  Step by step, we moved forward—him resisting, me encouraging.

I said, “I will carry you if I have to.”

Alex chose to walk.

The dentist’s office is a difficult place for Alex to be.  He generally resists anything that involves others touching his mouth.  He resists brushing his teeth, flossing, and all forms of dental care.  He resists us looking at his teeth or checking for wiggly, loose ones.  He resists the removal of wiggly, loose teeth or the removal of any miscellaneous particles he decides to chew on.

I expect resistance, which is why I travel two hours to take him to this clinic.  The staff is prepared for his resistance and the facility is equipped to make dental care as safe and as comfortable as possible.

This particular appointment was a “quickie.”  The task was to fill a chip on his front tooth.  Easy access.  No drilling.  No paste.  If Alex had cooperated the whole thing would have taken 5 to 10 minutes.

Of course, Alex did not cooperate.  Or, to be more accurate, Alex cooperated as much as he was able to do with his current level of oversensitivity and anxiety.  He squirmed most of the time.  He cried quite a bit of the time.  He got out some good words, through a pry-thing that forced his teeth apart, saying, “I don’t want.  Don’t want.  I don’t want.”

We acknowledge his words.  We told him we understood.  We explained as best we could that we had to fix his tooth so the big-boy tooth didn’t rot and break the way his baby tooth had done.  He understood.  He took a few ragged breaths and was relatively calm (but still squirming) for a few precious moments, which gave the dentist the opportunity she needed.

The dentist was quick as she could be.  She talked to Alex with respect while she worked within his limited range of cooperation.  She chided him when necessary and complimented him whenever possible.  In the beginning of the session, she joined in as I sang Alex’s special song to him to help him control his anxiety.

Alexander, Alexander.  I love you.  Yes I do.

Really special boy-oy.  Really special boy-oy.

I love you.  Yes I do-o-o-o-o.

Despite not liking the work she does, Alex likes his dentist quite a lot.  He made excellent eye contact with her, which is rare.  When it was all done, he even smiled for her.  But for all that he likes he, that doesn’t mean he’s able to cooperate while he’s in that chair.

The experience is hard on all of us.  He doesn’t want to do this.  I empathize, because I find the dental experience to be a miserable one myself.  I also don’t want Alex’s teeth to deteriorate the way mine have after a childhood (and much of my adulthood) of not receiving proper dental care.  I know, in the long-run, the misery of receiving dental care today is much, much better than the misery of decayed teeth with its tooth aches, drilling, pulling, and fake teeth.

One might think that all of this is beyond his understanding, but Alex gets it.  As much as he dislikes this he does get that we’re not trying to hurt him or ignore his wishes.  He gets that this needs to be done, and he gets that we try to make it as good for him as we can.  There was a precious moment after the filling was put on and set when Alex was calm.  He stopped squirming and crying.  He took a few ragged breaths.  He looked at the dentist’s face and he waited.  It was like he was saying, “Okay, what happens now.  I’m ready.”

The only thing that was left at the point was the x-ray.  Last time it took an extra person and four tries.  This time it only took two tries and no extra assistance.

We’re making progress.  Alex did really well.  The dentist and I praised Alex profusely.  Alex left with a smile, but he also left as quickly as he could.

Still, I look back and think about that precious moment of stillness.  As a mom, one of my biggest challenges is doing things to my kids that I know they don’t want, but need anyway.  Things like dental care, shots, and surgery.  These unwanted needs make me wonder how deeply my respect for my children really goes.  I strongly advocate the patient’s right to choose the type of care received or to forego care entirely.  I advocate these rights for patients who society deems incompetent to make these decisions.  Yet I make decisions like this for my children.

There are times I feel like a hypocrite.

Then, I think about that moment of stillness.  I think about the smile Alex gave to the doctor.  I think about the way he cuddled close to me after all of it was over, and how he relaxed after I told him he did a good job and that I was proud of him.

I think about how there are times, even as an adult, when I don’t want, but still need medical care.  I think about how anxiety-laden my own dental appointments are.  I think about how much it hurt to regain the mobility of my wrist.  I think about how, after the surgery on my wrist, I kept apologizing for needing a heftier dose of pain medication.  When I got home I apologized for needing my husband and my mother’s help.

And I let go of the guilt and the doubt.  I’m not a hypocrite.  As a parent, I have to make some tough decisions.  I have to decide what medical care has sufficient value to force that care on my children.  Sometimes this means dosing the child with antibiotics.  Other times it means restraining my child so a dentist can fix his teeth.  Sometimes it means talking the child through the anxiety of getting blood drawn or getting a shot.  But at no time do I do these things for me.  At no time do I put my convenience over my child’s care.  At no time do I treat my child as if his will doesn’t matter.  I talk, I explain, and I comfort.  I give my children choices whenever I can.  I refrain from making choices based on my needs or my convenience, but base my decisions on the long-term best interests of my child.  And my children recognize the difference.  That difference is going to empower my children to make their own decisions in the future.

Humane Dentistry

  • Posted on September 4, 2009 at 10:24 PM

Alex is our most complicated child.  The symptoms resulting from his autism are the most significant of our three children.  He’s nine years old and still hasn’t found an effective means of communicating consistently.  He rarely attempts verbal communication.  His sensory needs are difficult to meet, because he experiences a complicated mix of hyper- and hypo-sensitivity that seem to fluctuate without notice or apparent cause.  The many trained professionals over the years have made little progress in deciphering the mixed signals we get.  We don’t yet know how to help Alex interpret his environment consistently, which frustrates all of us.

Another ailment which is distinctly Alex’s (of my three boys) is something I don’t have a good name for.  Basically, when his adult teeth grow in his baby teeth have this nasty habit of not coming loose and falling out.  The adult tooth and the baby tooth compete for space where only one tooth should be.  It creates a double row of teeth in one spot that pushes both teeth out of ailment and affects the surrounding teeth.  He also has a very, very sensitive mouth.  When we first started brushing his teeth, he would occasionally gag to the point of throwing up.  Since then he’s learned to control his reactions.  When he cannot tolerate having his teeth brushed he just clamps down his teeth and lips so the toothbrush can’t get in.  If we catch him at just the right frame of mind and level of sensory management, we can occasionally get a tooth brush in his mouth and clean his teeth.  But, it’s not enough and he already shows signs of cavities.

Due to these complications, taking Alex to the dentist seems very inhumane.  To make the experience less traumatic, we go up to the dental clinic in the Children’s Hospital in Milwaukee.  They have a well-trained staff and special equipment housed in a seemingly ideal setting.  We take Alex into a private room with subdued lighting (except for the dentist’s lamp).  They have a hug blanket, which is a form of restraint intended to help keep him still and apply pressure that helps keep him calm.  But then we have to get the wedge in his mouth so the dentist can poke around in there.  The hug blanket isn’t enough, so on comes the happy gas (which isn’t available at the local dentist’s office).

Last time we took too long turning on the happy gas and Alex experienced such a severe reaction to the cleaning process that he threw up.  After that, a lot of happy gas was used.  Alex fell asleep or a state of near sleep, which allowed the dentist to x-ray his teeth (revealing the near cavities) and finish some of the cleaning.  Even in this state, Alex was uncooperative.  Furthermore, I was concerned that he’d had too much of the gas.  He lolled a great deal and lay down in the car on the way home.  It’s an hour and a half to two hour drive back to our house.  I was alone with Alex and as much as I would have liked to watch him, I had to keep my eyes on the road.  I felt anxious for his well-being all the way home, and would reach my arm behind me to touch him and feel the rise and fall of his shallow breaths.  He was out of it and upset for the rest of the day.

After seeing how traumatic the experience was for Alex, the dentist recommended putting him under general anesthesia in order to perform all his dental care needs at once.  This is a procedure the dental clinic is able to do, but getting MA approval is difficult.  Before we can get that approval we have another regular visit to see if just maybe it’ll go more smoothly this time.  It’s a week away and I’m not looking forward to it.  Luckily this time I will be picking my mother up at the airport on the way back, so I’ll have another set of eyes to watch Alex.

The question I ask myself is:  What would be the most humane way to get Alex the dental care he needs?  I don’t like restraints, I don’t like doping him up with “happy gas” (which, btw, doesn’t make him at all happy), and I don’t like the idea of putting him under.  Yet, without the restraints and the happy gas, dental care would be even more traumatic for Alex.  And putting him under may be the least traumatic alternative.  If teeth problems didn’t cause so much pain (as I know from my own mouth and through observing others), then I would probably say we should just forget the whole thing.  But cavities are painful.  Untreated cavities can lead to cysts, which are even more painful.  And, while I cannot be sure, I cannot imagine that having two teeth where there should only be one would be all that comfortable.  I especially cannot imagine that, since his aggressive behavior started right around the time the first baby tooth refused to come out.  It might be coincidence, but he might be in constant pain or maybe just discomfort.  That would certainly explain his irritability.  But so would the general frustration of being unable to consistently communicate in a manner that is understood by others.

The most difficult thing for me is the ignorance.  I don’t know the best thing to do for my child.  If I knew, but was unable to do it, I could at least plan and strategize how to achieve my goals.  But, not knowing leaves so few options.  At this point, I can only make the best choice possible – using both my head and my heart to see which way to go – and hope Alex can forgive me if I’m wrong.  As a parent, there is just so much of that.  We second-guess ourselves, because some of the choices we make are just wrong.  But we never have all the information; we never know all the consequences; and we cannot see inside our children’s minds or ask their future selves to know what they would choose if they were able.  We must do the best we can and remember to say “I’m sorry” when we’re wrong.

P.S. Left Brain/Right Brain also has a post about autism and dentistry that leads you to an article by Darlene Oakley.