At Home With Vivian: Al Dente

I went to the dentist last week for a checkup and got to talking to the young dental assistant about the good old days. “Back in the day,” I began, and then cracked up. It seems like everything now is ‘back in the day’ for me!

Dental insurance is a fairly recent phenomenon, unlike medical insurance, which started being offered in 1850. Dental insurance was first introduced in California in 1954. Most of my generation didn’t have dental coverage until our teen years at the earliest, so, going to the dentist wasn’t something we did without careful consideration. I was a lucky kid as far as dental care was concerned when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. Our neighbor in West Pittsburg was a young dentist, Dr. David Cook.

Dr. Cook was an excellent dentist and an exceptional man. My family had lived in our new home in West Pittsburg just a few months when my older teenaged sister Brenda developed a horrendous toothache. Our family dentist at the time was unreachable so my mother went across the court and asked the young dentist living there what he recommended she should do next. Well, Dr. Cook hurried to our house, took one look at Brenda, and drove her to his office in Pittsburg and fixed the problem! He was so good that Brenda refused to go back to the family dentist. Dr. Cook had to retire forty years later to get rid of us.

Brushing teeth was not my favorite thing to do as a kid. Consequently, I spent a lot more time in the dental chair than my friends. Having my dentist as a neighbor and dad to my friends made for very comfortable office visits. Dr. Cook liked kids and the way he did his work on me showed this. As his dental assistant loaded dental instruments on the tray next to the chair, he’d hold up each piece and tell me what it was called and what it was used for. I know the difference between a sickle probe and a scaler.

Dr. Cook’s exam rooms were always interesting. He hung art mobiles from the ceilings. I loved the one made with sailing ships. As the air conditioning circulated the air, the ships looked like they were floating over the open sea. He also tacked posters to the ceiling so that when you were laying on your back you had something to read. During the late 1960s and 1970s the posters were vibrant with color.

To keep me from squirming around in my seat, Dr. Cook showed me how I could watch him work. The goose neck light fixture that he positioned over patients was made of a shiny metal. If I looked just so, I could see my own reflection in the area surrounding the lamp. Sometimes his hand would get in the way and I found myself wiggling so I could see what he was doing in my mouth better. I’m sure that must have frustrated Dr. Cook, but he was always gentle about putting his hand on my shoulder to remind me to sit still. It didn’t take too long before I discovered an even better way to watch my own reflection. I could see myself in Dr. Cook’s glasses! It’s kind of gross when you think about it, but it was intriguing to watch those shiny metal tools dance in and out of my numb mouth. As strange as it sounds, I looked forward to those office visits. Especially when I got to pick out a little toy from his cardboard treasure box if I had been a good patient.

Because few people had dental insurance in those days, Dr. Cook was always aware of how much his patients could afford. He often charged less than the going rate to our family, and got creative where he could to keep costs down. The most creative project I remember was on my kid sister Johnette.

She had lost her teeth like all kids do and was proud of her new front teeth. When we went in for our annual checkup – lo and behold! – Johnette had another set of adult teeth not only coming in right on top of the set she already had, but were making all of her teeth go crooked. Well, Dr. Cook said that what he ought to do was to refer her to an orthodontist to get Johnette’s mouth fixed properly. But knowing my mother’s financial situation, he came up with another plan. With my mother’s permission, he extracted Johnette’s extra teeth at strategic growth points during the year. He hoped that her teeth would slide straight into their normal slots. They did. He was probably more thrilled than we were that it worked. To this day Johnette has straight teeth and a beautiful smile, thanks to Dr. Cook.

After Dr. Cook moved away from our neighborhood, my checkups were like visiting an old friend. He kept me up to date on what his kids were up to and he’d always ask about my family. After he finished his checkup exam the year I was fifteen, he looked at me with a big smile and declared, “I bet you have a boyfriend!” “Yes,” I stammered, quite taken aback. How did he know? “This is the best checkup you’ve had in years!” he said and then teased me about my pretty smile.

Life goes on. My mother passed away, my kid sister moved to Washington, I married a military man and left home for twenty years. When we moved back to California, the first thing I did was make an appointment with Dr. Cook. Seeing him again was like going home. Unfortunately for me and good for him – he retired soon after. “Now what do I do?” I whined to him on our last visit. He told me to look for a dentist close to where I lived. Make an appointment. If I felt good, stay, if not, look for the next closest dentist. I took his advice.

I looked up the dentist closest to our home in Vacaville at that time. Dr. Moezi and Dr. Farr were a young couple starting a new dental practice. It was the right fit for our family from day one. We’ve been through wisdom teeth removals, years of braces, and a root canal here and there. Dr. Moezi said from the very beginning that he could tell I grew up with a good dentist. It was nice to hear Dr. Cook’s work complimented.

My mother wasn’t as lucky as a child as I was. She was one of eight children raised during the depression. Preventative dental care was not an option. If you got dental care, it was on an emergency basis only. She lived most of her life with her hand over her crooked teeth when she laughed. Because of dental insurance, fluoride in the water, and better hygiene practices, it’s rare to see people with bad teeth today.

I had fun regaling the young dental assistant with stories of yesteryear, when dentists always said “swish and spit” and I got to pick a little prize from the cardboard treasure box if I was good. But truth be told, even though I have good memories of those days, I wouldn’t want to go back. Dentistry is much more advanced now. I like getting a new toothbrush every time I go, but having a treasure chest with little prizes for adult patients might be a good idea!

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