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5 Lessons I Learned During Dental Visits for My Bilateral Cleft Lip and Palate

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It’s funny, you meet people and interact with them on a regular basis, and never imagine your relationship will end. This was especially the case with Dr. B. It never occurred to me that I would, one day, never see him every month, or every couple of weeks. He was a fixture in my life from about age 12 to 26.

The bilateral cleft lip and palate team, during the time I was a patient at the hospital, did not have a psychologist on its team. They did prior to my time of care. It did not matter for much of the time I was treated for my cleft lip and palate issues because I had Dr. B, who helped me with these self-esteem and interpersonal issues.

Dr. B. was a person who unknowingly helped me develop my social skills. He allowed me to be snarky, funny and smart. I felt like I fit right into the world in a way that was not fully realized when I went back out onto the sidewalk or back to school after our appointments.

Here are five life lessons I learned while sitting in the dentist chair:

1. Wit and Comedic Timing

Dr. B would love to bring in the dental students and show off his hard work inside my mouth. I would say funny things as they “ooo’d” and “ahhhh’d” as Dr. B explained what he had accomplished. He moved my teeth around quite a bit. I remember saying something along the lines of, “he’s pretty great, right?” or “what a guy?” to the five or more gathered students. This happened on more than one occasion. It made me laugh because I always predicted the explanation by Dr. B and the reaction by the students. And I am sure he knew what I was thinking every time.

2. Cultivate Self Esteem and Share Mutual Respect

Most people do not look forward to going to the dentist, but I did, and to some extent still do most likely due to this wonderful, caring doctor. I knew I was going to laugh, show off my quick wit, and converse on just about everything. Many of the others that worked at the clinic treated me like a peer, as if I worked there, not as a child being treated. This was a clear sign of respect. I knew I had value in that environment, so I knew I must have value in the other places, too. When you have a facial difference, the reinforcement of your value in the world is significant to good mental health.

3. Find Allies

I’m sure I talked about friend and peer situations at school with him, and I’m sure Dr. B gave advice, but nothing specific comes to mind. He was a paternal figure in my life I knew I could count on. You have to have allies when you are different. You need to know people are in your corner ready to support you.

4. Develop Resilience and Participate in Productive Teamwork

Thanks to Dr. B, I was able to experience pain with some grace and dignity. Many times we both knew it was going to hurt, but we got through it together. I would always close my eyes tight and moan, and he would encourage me to just hang in there to put a little more pressure on those teeth he wanted to move. This was a lesson in resilience. An incident with his colleague, Dr. S, who I also love dearly, illustrates another great example of resilience, and learning to lean on another in time of mental and physical strife. Dr. S. wanted to take some impressions of my teeth to make a mold for one contraption or another that would eventually land in my mouth. Unfortunately, during this series of impressions (a process that is miserable to begin with) some of the composite, or gunky material that would make the mold of my teeth, got pressed up, in between my mouth and my nasal cavity. I was born with a complete bilateral cleft lip and palate, which means that the oral and nasal cavity are not separated by tissue and bone in certain locations. Dr. S. tried, and tried, and tried to get the composite out with the high-powered suction, and an explorer for over an hour. It was extraordinarily painful for me. Finally, both of us were exhausted, pasty white, and waving the white flag of surrender. I got up and felt the need to blow my nose. The composite came out my nostrils. Dr. S and I were shocked, gobsmacked, with our jaws wide open. When my mother arrived at the door to the treatment room she could not believe how tired and white we both looked. And there were many more times with Dr. B. where resiliency and the “we-are-going-to-get-through-this-together” attitude helped us reach the finish line.

If I had enough fight in me, and was resilient for all those procedures, what could the world possibly throw at me inter-personally that I could not handle? A lot. But I got through it.

5. Sometimes Other People Have to Believe in You Before You Can Believe in Yourself

Dr. B never questioned me the way I questioned myself. Am I fun? Am I interesting? Do people even want me around? No, Dr. B did not question those things at all. I learned that I was fun, interesting, and that people do want to be around me. How did I know? He treated me as a friend, not a patient. He showed me my worth by how he chose to interact with me. His example spoke louder than words. This is one of the greatest gifts a person can give to another that by all outward appearances is different.

He was the dentist who tweaked my teeth, my self-esteem and my life. I will always be thankful for these gifts. Thank you, Dr. B.

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Thinkstock image by moodboard

Originally published: April 19, 2017
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