When was the last time you thought about your childhood dentist?
That out-of-the-blue question is prompted by a Wednesday visit to my current dentist. As the oral hygienist was cleaning my teeth she found a cavity in a bottom molar. Last year she found two cavities.
I hadn’t had a cavity in perhaps 30 years, but three cavities since I turned 70 perhaps is validation that after attaining the biblical equivalent of a full life—three score and 10—one begins a second childhood, which in my earlier case, was punctuated with multiple cavities. The second childhood theory might also explain why many Jews celebrate a second bar mitzvah when they turn 83.
Two and a half blocks from my Brooklyn home Dr. Turetsky’s office sat at the corner of East 17th Street and Neck Road, the last unit of a series of attached single family residences. Two pruned circular topped trees stood at the base of the walkway leading to the small porch. A huge weeping willow tree adorned the small lawn.
Inside, a waiting room the size of a modest living room had it been a residence was furnished with stern industrial grey leather chairs around the perimeter. Two Van Gogh reprints hung on a wall. One depicted an old woman, her hands folded on her lap; the second, a covered wagon in a field. On another wall, a harvest scene.
Inside the patient care area, a smell of antiseptic.
Dr. Turetsky was a dour man of modest height, round face, round black glasses, a wisp of a mustache, thin black hair brushed straight back. In all the times I went to his office, I cannot recall ever seeing him smile.
I’d see him at least once a year. My elementary school required annual visits to a dentist. But I never saw him just once a year.
I had lots of cavities. My sister Lee insists she had more than I did, an achievement I gladly will concede to her. I had enough to forever traumatize me to this day about visiting a dentist.
As much as I disliked Dr. Turetsky scaling and scraping tartar from my teeth during the annual cleaning, it was the sound and feel of his drill inside my mouth that truly distressed me. Sometimes he would freeze up the affected tooth. Most times he would inject novocaine.
It didn’t matter that I could feel nothing. As he was drilling I would arch my back as if pain was shooting through me. I still do that with my current dentist.
After drilling a hole around the cavity, Dr. Turetsky would engage a machine that hummed and buzzed loudly as it prepared the silver, or was it mercury, he would insert into the space in my tooth.
The walk home with my front lip feeling puffy and unable to secure a straw or cup was as ignoble a retreat as Napoleon endured from Moscow.
But of all my visits to Dr. Turetsky’s office, one procedure in his chamber of torture stands out. I was a late teenager, probably 18 or 19. I needed a wisdom tooth, on the top left side, removed. Dr. Turetsky contemplated sending me to a specialist but then decided he could do it,
Shot up with novocaine I shuttered as he approached with what looked like a medieval set of pliers reserved for the mouths of prisoners in the Tower of London. He secured the pliers to the molar and starting yanking. Nothing. No movement.
He needed better leverage. He pulled over a step stool and stood above me to my right. At least he did not prop his knee on my chest for added leverage, but the memory of that extraction kept me from returning to his office, indeed, from sitting in any dentist’s chair, for about five years by which time I was married and living far enough away in Seymour, Conn., to seek out a new dentist.
Sure enough, my new dentist had to extract another wisdom tooth. Fortunately, he did it painlessly.
For a third wisdom tooth removal, my former dentist in Yonkers also did it himself. It was a lower left side tooth. It might have gone easily if one of the roots had not broken off and remained locked in my jaw. He tried and tried to get it out to no avail other than my discomfort.
He finally gave up, saying it didn’t really matter. He wished me good luck and cautioned that if I experienced any pain I should call the dentist who would be covering for him during his vacation which would begin as soon as he closed his office that day.
That night while sleeping the blood clot over the vacant tooth area dripped out onto my pillow. That morning I started to feel a throbbing pain. I thought it was the aftereffects of the dentist trying to root out the recalcitrant part of my tooth. For the next two days I alternated Tylenol and ibuprofen to ease the pain.
Finally, I couldn’t take it any longer and contacted the on-call dentist. He knew right away I had developed a dry socket, a sensitivity to air on the extraction spot. As soon as he put a slight amount of cement on the site the pain subsided.
After that experience I caution anyone I know getting a wisdom tooth taken out to be mindful of developing a dry socket.