Sometimes it’s not what we say, but how we say it.
Our practice had been open for less than a year, when MaryAnn called just as we were about to close the office for the day. “Thank you for calling Dr. Meade’s office, this is Terry, how can I help you”? There was a short period of silence followed by sobbing until finally a fragile voice, barely audible beneath the whimpers, was heard, “I need help”. Terry’s experience as an Intensive Care Nurse prior to our opening the practice gave her the ability to recognize the sincerity and urgency in the woman’s voice. She told Terry that she just came home from another dentist who told her she was going to lose all of her teeth and if that was true, she said, “I’m going to kill myself!” She said she heard about my reputation and decided to make one more phone call, but if I couldn’t help her, she was going to do it.
Terry came to me as I was turning off the lights, getting ready to go home for the day, and told me about MaryAnn. “Well what did you tell her?” I asked. “I told her to come right over and that she shouldn’t worry because you’re the best dentist in the world and that you would definitely be able to save her teeth!”
Terry’s experience as an Intensive Care Nurse came into play once again, as she revived me to consciousness. “You told her what? How could you tell her that? What if I can’t help her? Her blood will be on my hands! It will be my fault if she kills herself! I’m a dentist, I shouldn’t be killing people!”
Terry revived me for a second time just as MaryAnn walked through the door. She was a slight woman in her mid 60’s. She wore a surgical mask which we later found out she wore every time she went out because she was ashamed of the way her teeth looked. She was a nurse, so no one really questioned her about wearing a mask at work. She made her living by helping others, and now she needed help. She was desperate and she was scared.
Even though I was a young dentist with limited experience, after spending just five minutes with MaryAnn, I knew that we could help her. I say we because Terry was as responsible for rescuing MaryAnn as I was. No I couldn’t save her teeth; no one could! She had advanced periodontal disease that was beyond repair. I had to tell her what she didn’t want to hear, that she was going to lose all of her teeth. And in those days, I couldn’t even offer her the miraculous option of dental implants like we can offer today. She was condemned to wearing full dentures for the rest of her life, and I had to tell her the truth, no matter how unpleasant hearing it might be.
So what made me so sure that I could help her? I knew I could because after having some conversation with MaryAnn, and listening to her express her concerns, I realized that it wasn’t losing her teeth that she was so afraid of, it was losing her dignity! She needed somebody to care; to be non-judgemental. To be supportive and to hold her hand through one of life’s more difficult transitions. She was alone and she needed a friend!
We proceeded slowly with transitioning MaryAnn to dentures. We only removed the teeth that were actively infected or causing discomfort at first, but within a year, it was time to move on. Her remaining diseased teeth were removed and she was given her first set of full dentures. She did better than any of us ever imagined. After a short adjustment period MaryAnn wore her dentures with pride. She no longer wore a surgical mask when she went out and in fact, you couldn’t get her to stop smiling. She was eating better and eating more foods then she was able to before. She was happy and she regained her confidence. She got her life back! And here’s the thing, the treatment we provided for MaryAnn wasn’t any different than the treatment presented by the dentist who inspired her to kill herself. The difference is we took the time to listen and we took the time to care.
Did we save MaryAnn’s life? No. I like to think that her threat to commit suicide was just an idle threat, a desperate cry for help. After getting to know MaryAnn, I really don’t believe she would have done it. So maybe we didn’t save her life, but I know for sure that we gave her life back to her. She changed from a woman living in fear and isolation to an exuberant, outgoing and productive woman, a woman who dedicated her life to helping others and now looks forward to every new day because we were able to help her. Having an opportunity to do that for another person is what makes dentistry such a great profession. Terry and I are so grateful that MaryAnn came to see us that night, even though it was after hours and we wanted to go home.
Take the time to listen, take the time to care.
Harvey Meade, DMD