“Dental Plan, Lisa Needs Braces”

Trying to find decent healthcare in America is like searching for hen’s teeth. Unfortunately, even if you find a good one, not all dentists and doctors are the most scrupulous.

Painting via Christoph Niemann

For the last few months, I’ve been writing a monthly column in the Guernsey Press about living in America. The newspaper is only available with a paid subscription online, so I’m posting them up on Medium when they are published. Sometimes it’s funny. It’s only a little bit about Trump.

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Back in November, a couple of days after Donald Trump was elected, I made an appointment to visit the dentist. The weeks following the election had been a disaster for productivity. Every meeting seemed to descend into ad-hoc therapy, it was impossible to tell who was happy and who was unhappy. The way anyone had voted was unclear, but it seemed like nobody in New York had voted for Trump.

“Apart from that weird part of Brooklyn, and the whole of Staten Island,” said James, at the end of an hour long planning meeting. “I feel terrible, it makes me feel bad I joked about Brexit.”

Despite the political malaise, the American healthcare system was still a nightmare. And finding a good dentist was no exception. Everyone in the office was an expert in how to navigate the system (who to go to for what pills and prescriptions, how to write off healthcare bills on their taxes, which doctors didn’t ask questions about prescription refills), but everyone was very protective about the doctor they used. As if their names and numbers were a scarce, non-renewable energy source.

Living in the States wasn’t easy without access to healthcare. Companies were always cutting spending, and healthcare was a luxury not everyone had access to. Coworkers told stories of friends of friends they knew whose companies gave zero days of maternity cover.

“I know someone,” insisted James. “Who got two weeks. Her company didn’t have a maternity policy, so she had to take two weeks of vacation to cover giving birth.”

I never found out if that was true but I was nervous about this dental appointment.

Second week in December, I risked my life and went to the dentist. Her office was an unassuming basement building on 3rd Avenue, but inside it was lit like a movie studio. The dentist herself was a charming Korean lady in her late thirties called Dr Kim. She loomed over my mouth like a gold miner surveying a rich, untapped seam of treasure.

“You don’t floss, do you?” Dr Kim said.

“I do!” I half mumbled through the implements in my mouth.

“Well you’re not doing it properly. You have gingivitis, you should probably see a periodontist.”

“You’re not a periodontist?” I said.

Dr Kim sighed, “I can recommend one in midtown. He will know how to treat you.”

A week later I took the subway up to 42nd Street. The periodontist’s office was on the top floor of the Chrysler Building. The entire floor was dedicated to dental professionals. Fifteen or twenty dentists rented chairs from the landlord and performed expensive services to justify the price of the view.

The views were worth the price of any potential treatment. I lay back on the dentists chair and watched planes circle in and out of Newark airport across the Hudson River in New Jersey. I tried not to think about those same planes crashing into the building.

“Ah yes, now this situation is quite bad,” the periodontist said, as he rooted around inside my mouth.

“How old are you?”

“Twenty-nine.”

“And you still have your wisdom teeth?”

“Is that a bad thing?”

He let out a small sigh. “You should have them removed, they cause terrible bad breath. And your mouth can get very crowded.”

He gave the left side of my mouth a gentle prod. “ I’d really like to take them out now if that’s ok.”

The periodontist’s lab-coat was two sizes too big for him, the shoulders sloped off his frame as if he hoped to grow into the coat at a later date. He had a bad Australian accent, like he was a Californian cast as a dentist on Neighbours.

Hearing my own accent, he asked where I was from. He perked up when I said Guernsey. He said, you know of Matt Le Tissier? I said, yes, I’m familiar with the name. For five minutes he wouldn’t let up. His dad had been a Southampton fan when he relocated to Sydney in the ’70s. And he had inherited the affliction. He’d grown up worshipping Le Tissier, but nobody in Australia understood him.

“I have never met a Guernseyman before,” he said. “And you know Le Tissier?”

I said, unfortunately, I did not. He seemed disappointed. “Anyway, your gums are receding rather badly,” he said. “We’re going to need to perform a gum graft.”

“Sorry?”

“We’ll slice a small strip from the roof of your mouth and graft it onto your gums, to stop them receding, they’re going backwards at an alarming rate. Here’s a photo of what can happen if we don’t do this procedure in the next six months.”

From under the chair, he produced a small binder which contained photographs of the inside of people’s mouths in various stages of disrepair and decay.

“Do I have to decide to have the procedure now?” Americans always want bigger names for things. I suspected my gums really weren’t in such a bad shape. Afterall, they weren’t openly bleeding.

“No, but I would recommend we do a deep clean of your teeth while we have you here.”

He loomed over me with a needle. I lay there and felt like a hairy old horse with a mouthful of broken glass for teeth.

“We’ll just pop some novocaine in your gums and clean things up.”

Half an hour later I was out on the sidewalk in midtown, my mouth half-numbed and saliva running down my chin. With no feeling in one half of my mouth, I couldn’t control where I was drooling and where I wasn’t.

Months passed. I forgot about the procedure and my trip to the dentist. None of my teeth fell out. I began to think I’d been taken for a ride. The next time I was back in the UK, four or five months later, I went to my old dentist.

“Whatever you do, don’t get that procedure,” he advised. “Your teeth are fine.”


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