A dentist with a different approach
By Marcy White (above with Jacob)
I took my eight-year-old son to the dentist. His appointment was the last one of the day, at 3:30. From the moment I woke up, I felt a ball of dread bouncing around in my stomach.
Taking Jacob to any appointment is an ordeal. Physically, it is difficult for me to carry him into the car. There is a lot to remember to bring with us, including bibs, a change of clothing, diapers and – depending on the time of day – pre-measured medication loaded into syringes, his food and his feeding pump. Emotionally, medical appointments are challenging because Jacob hates being examined. He yells, his only way to protest, for the entire duration of the meeting.
As much as I tried to put the day’s consultation out of my mind, it kept popping back into my consciousness and I imagined the sound of Jacob's angry screams reverberating in my ears.
His school bus arrived home at the usual time, 3:10. I immediately placed him into his car seat and clumsily heaved his 100+-pound wheelchair into the back of my van. During the 15-minute car ride, I told him where we were headed and reminded him that he was a big boy and didn't need to be scared.
I explained to Jacob that the reason we were going to a new dentist is because this is the dentist his sisters go to. Sierra and Jamie really like him and we thought Jacob would like him too.
For a child who’s fed by a tube inserted directly into his stomach, one would think that dentist visits were not necessary. Ironically, that is not the case because the act of chewing cleans teeth, in much the same way as a toothbrush does. Because Jacob doesn’t chew, plaque accumulates in his mouth at a much faster rate and he needs a dental exam every four months.
Until that day, Jacob had always seen an experienced dentist, a professional who rarely spoke directly to him. My son’s typical behavioural pattern was to start screaming uncontrollably the second his wheels crossed the threshold of the exam room.
Jacob's screams are incessant. They leave him soaked in sweat – as if he has just emerged from a shower. He chokes during the appointment because he cannot swallow all the secretions that his yelling causes. In short, the dentist visit is torturous for all involved, but it's hellish for my son.
Sadly, most of the medical professionals we've encountered over the course of Jacob's eight years have had virtually no social interaction with him. I cringe each time the doctors ignore my son – the patient – and speak only to me. When I inform them that Jacob understands our conversation, they still don’t interact with him. They often begin their examination without asking Jacob’s permission to touch him or explaining what they will do. I didn’t expect today to be any different.
As we entered the small, non-air-conditioned office we were told that the dentist would see us shortly. I wheeled Jacob into the waiting room and banged into a chair along the way because the aisle was not wide enough for Jake's wheels to pass easily. I sat down next to my son and reminded him about what would happen during the appointment. A few times his mouth contorted into the saddest frown that made me want to cry, but Jacob was able to compose himself. He was trying to be brave.
The room was hot and stuffy and I worried that the temperature alone would upset him. A friendly hygienist came up to us, crouched down and told Jacob that it wouldn't be much longer until it was his turn. Jacob looked at her and listened while she spoke to him. I can’t remember the last time someone at a doctor’s appointment thought to bend down and speak directly to my son. The simple act of conversing with Jacob, at his eye level, was enough to make me notice that so far this appointment was different from most of the other ones we've been to.
A short while later, the dentist, a tall, lanky man with a big smile, walked into the room and promptly shook Jacob's hand and said: “Hi Jacob, my name is Ed.” Instead of breaking into an ear-piercing shriek at the sight of this stranger, Jacob lifted his head to look at the newcomer. He was curious and willing to let this person speak to him. Ed sat down on his stool and explained, to Jacob, what he wanted to do during the appointment. He then asked Jacob if it was okay with him. Treating my son like a person was all it took for Jacob to listen and not scream. When it came time for the actual exam, my son was calm and co-operative.
My heart was racing; I was amazed by Jacob’s behaviour. I couldn’t believe this was the same kid whose screams are legendary at the hospital where we attend most of our appointments. I was so proud of my son and felt like giving the dentist a huge hug. I tried explaining how dramatically different Jake behaved and how talking directly to him made such a difference. I don’t think Ed fully understood the magnitude of this event and how it altered things for us.
Later that night, when I replayed the afternoon in my head, I felt a heavy sadness in my chest. I realized that during all the previous appointments Jacob was probably screaming for someone to explain what they wanted from him. It was terribly distressing to me that it took eight years to find someone who was willing to look past Jacob’s physical impairments to see the person in the wheelchair. I imagined how different the past eight years would have been if the doctors who had ignored my son had treated the whole person he is – and not just a body part.
Since that momentous day, Jacob and I have changed. At the start of medical appointments, I tell the professional that Jacob does not like being examined and doctors scare him. But if they speak to him and explain what will happen, he might be more co-operative. So far, it’s worked. Appointments are still physically difficult, but they are not as terrible as they once were.
And if you need a dentist, I can give you the number of a great one.