Baffled by Numbers

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I am more than the sum of my gums

Should my doctor be nice to me? I sure think so!

I just got back from the dentist, and I have the swollen right side of my mouth to prove it, which, thank God, you cannot see. I have been a bad girl flossing-wise, and needed to undergo scaling, otherwise known as conventional periodontal therapy. It involves getting anesthesia to half the mouth, then having a doctor probe your numb side, removing whatever causes an inflammation. Thereby generating a bloodbath that's supposed to make you better.

Thing is, I can handle the pain. I close my eyes so as not to see the anesthesia needles (all three of them), I can breathe through the procedure and will even come back to have the left side of my mouth scaled. What I cannot handle was the way the guy doing the scaling handled me. I'll call him Dr. C., because that's what I think his last name starts with. How would I know? He never introduced himself. Dr. C. comes to my regular dentist's office to perform scaling and the like, and that's all he seems to care about. Scaling, you see, begins and ends in the gums, whereas patient care is a somewhat more comprehensive notion, involving actually caring about the patient as a person. It's not a selfish desire either. Studies show that the leading number reason why patients leave doctors, even hospitals, is that they feel they are not being treated with respect.

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If caring is too much, I would settle for my healthcare professionals to feign caring. Like my regular dentist, who calls me ‘sweety' and lays his hand ever so lightly upon my shoulder. It's a well-rehearsed motion, I realize that, but it calms me down and puts a smile on my scardy cat face. When someone's about to stick sharp object in my soft oral tissue, he's better not needle me.

And Dr. C. needled me alright. The nurse told him I'd received anesthesia, but he wasn't even paying attention to her. "I'm going to numb you," he says, to which I had to mumble through my dormant jaws "I've been numbed". Oh well, he proceeded to tilt my seat so that I was lying down, my head lower than my legs. At such moments I always have conflicting thoughts. One is that this is a really good form of torture, which sends my mind off in all sorts of wrong directions. Another is that, as a yogi, I should take deep breaths and think, say, of Sri Dharma Mittra's upcoming birthday celebration.

There was only so much deep breathing I can do with my elephantine jaws, strange fluids pouring down my throat. I choked, making a gagging sound that must have reverberated all the way to the receptionist, then pounded on my seat. This made Dr. C. stop and tilt the seat back up. Thank God he did that, but that was all he did. How about "are you alright?" "Do you need any help?" "Can I get you anything?" Oh, no. You see, it wasn't me, Talya, the doctor was treating, it was my gums, and he waited for them to get back in position so he could scale away.

Once he was done excavating though my flesh, Dr. C. pulled the chair back up, and left. What else was there to do now that the gums were taken care of? Surely no need to inquire how I felt, to suggest anything to alleviate the pain once the shots wore off, or to ask if I wanted to rinse the bloody mess out of my mouth? The procedure was completed, and that's all that mattered. To Dr. C., if that was even his name.

Yoga is the unity of mind, body and breath. Scaling, Dr. C., taught me today, is the act of deconstructing. Separating the gums from the mind, the soul, the person choking on their own saliva. It's a lesson I wish I had not learned. 

Talya Miron-Shatz, Ph.D., is a researcher at Princeton University. She specializes in medical decision making of patients and health professionals.

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