My work in the dental field has taught me more about the human condition than I could ever have imagined. When I walked out of graduate school in 1980, my head was full of methods, techniques and procedures all based in what was supposed to be ‘science’. I thought that I should be ready for anything but somehow I didn’t feel ready for anything.
When I began practice, I quickly realised that all the training had left me speaking and thinking a different language to ‘ordinary people’. They had a perception of dentistry and a perception of what I would be as a dentist which was not the case. I had a perception of them as willing participants in the whole dental ‘thing’ which was equally inaccurate. My education had just begun!
People, I found, did not like dentists or dentistry as a general rule. They perceived it as foreboding at best, very painful at worst. They did not like being there and often only grudgingly arrived at the door due to pain which they hoped would go away by itself but didn’t or got worse. Often they would greet me with a phrase like ‘I hate dentists, no offense’. This is hardly the best way to begin any relationship, let alone one that hopes to bring relief and healing. How does a person work with someone who does not want to be there, is fearful of the help and yet still in pain?
Academic dental science never addressed this issue in college. We were schooled in how to do things to teeth and gums but without any understanding of the person and the human condition that characterised both myself as a clinician and the person I had hoped to serve. These persons were dubbed ‘patients’ by the profession and were spoken about without personal name or individual characteristics as ‘the patient’. This is still the modus operandi in schools and colleges around the country. The ‘patient’ was observed and examined and subjected to tests to collect facts and figures to determine a diagnosis and a plan to treat.
There is implied in this a fundamental disconnect between the person and the dentist, the observed and the observer, the active and the passive, the doer and the ‘one to whom it’s done’’. This ‘taught and reinforced disconnect ‘is the primary dysfunction in the health care system in general and the dental field in particular. We have been trying to connect using disconnection. What could we hope for with such a method? Our notes (paramount to the current system) are full of ‘the patient this’ and ‘the patient that’ and the facts and figures but the humanness of the relationship might as well not exist. No wonder that Carl Rogers had to create a model in Psychotherapeutics which was ‘person centred’ as opposed to the ‘theory-centred’ model of analytic Freudian interpretation openly calling itself Psychoanalysis at that time.
It seemed to me that the first job was to find out what had soured our relationship and then use whatever means I could to mend the disconnect. The quality of a relationship has been shown to be the most important aspect of positive outcome in the psychotherapeutic field scientifically. But is that not common sense? Surely it is obvious that if my relationship is poor or lacking, satisfaction with that relationship will be poor and lacking. Obvious or not, that is the way that we were trained.
It may be common sense but it is not common practice.
It is heartbreaking to see so many people suffering but the physical pain is only part of the story, and only by understanding the other aspects of our humanness can our real issues be addressed. It was clear that there was underlying mental and emotional pain which was being hidden beneath the surface and conveniently ignored and discounted. Now it was clear to me that the whole person needed to be included in our encounters if we were to address the real issues.
My passion was, is and has always been people. I care deeply about the whole of a person – mind, body, and spirit – and desire more than anything to give back the power where it belongs, to the person and their choices in order to enrich the lived experience and the experience of living. Dental Health had become a new and exciting journey into myself and the human condition, a synergy of many energies, dental health synergy.
Seeing so many of the people I served so afraid, yet committed to the pursuit of dental health inspired me to learn everything I could about anxiety. My journey brought me deep into all manner of psychological studies in order to find and understand myself. This has allowed me meet people where they were stuck, grab their hands, and walk with them toward total healing not just in their teeth, but in their very souls where the insecurities had gotten hold. That is not an exaggeration. Our human pain is very deep and will never be healed with an approach that is superficial. It gave me a completely new perspective and inspired the name of my book “Something To Chew On”.