“An Unofficial Dental History,” by Bill Jones

Sep 1st, 2021 | By | Category: Nonfiction, Prose

We’ve all heard horror stories about small town medical practices.  I guess I got off lucky. I grew up in the 1950s in Frederick, Maryland, at the time a town of fewer than 20,000 people. I never had to go to the local orthopedist, a man nicknamed “Wrong Knee” or had a colonoscopy performed by that doctor who kept his patients awake and just had them lean over a sawhorse to let the scoping begin. Things were a little dicier for me, though, in the dental arena.

Enter an orthodontist who was perpetually surly and whose idea of office décor was glass cases of plaster-of-Paris molds of hundreds of patients’ overbites. The man seemed oblivious to the pain inflicted when he tightened railroad tracks on teeth. He made room for expansion by having upper teeth pulled, and after 9 years of treatment in grades 2 through 11, I still have a gap between my front teeth and occasional moments when my jaws lock shut. And I can’t erase the memory of the guy’s dental assistant, a gray-haired, apparently benign woman who would smile and spray air in my face when the dentist wasn’t looking. While I sat with throbbing jaws and the orthodontist rummaged through his tools, she would strum on the wires protruding from my mouth.

One of my fondest dental memories of this time period was watching my pink plastic retainer swim like a manta ray out of my mouth and down a drain at Fort Detrick Pool. And, of course, there was the day I ripped out all of my braces while eating a red candy apple at The Great Frederick Fair. I tried forcing them back into place so my parents wouldn’t notice, but they kept falling out when I talked. Great Frederick Fair, indeed.

But nothing became nightmarish until I had my lower wisdom teeth extracted at age 18. That procedure required the services of a dental surgeon, a legendary man in Frederick who later had a patient or two die in his chair. Like my orthodontist, I think he was the only practitioner with that specialty in the town at the time. So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that the ‘dental assistant’ putting an IV in my right arm was my next-door neighbor who was my age and one year out of high school. To the best of my knowledge, she’d had no medical training. Before I lost consciousness, I remember the tube coming loose from the needle and a clear, cold liquid spraying me lightly in the face. I woke up some time later on a wooden bench in a room that was like a closet. Across the closet from me on a second bench was a little boy snoring and drooling. I had probably been doing the same for quite a while.

I was back in the office in about a week with infections in both holes in my mouth, but I just vaguely remember the curative procedure that I believe is known as ‘lancing.’ The story ends well though. After the unfortunate demise of a patient or two, the dental surgeon gave up his practice and became a weight-loss specialist. Apparently, his technique was vaguely dental; he wired patients’ jaws shut and had them eat through a straw for weeks. A couple of malpractice suits later, the doc lost his license in Maryland and left the state to set up shop in West Virginia. No big loss, I guess, of weight or otherwise.

The extraction of my upper wisdom teeth involved a lot less drama. By then, I’d moved to Baltimore to seek my fame and fortune and had found a dentist who was a true professional. He removed the teeth quickly and with minimal discomfort. I should note, however, that a year later that dentist started drilling and filling my teeth needlessly. He had bought his building and had a mortgage to pay. I guess big city dentistry has its own kind of pain.

Next, I tried two other dentists in Baltimore who also proved to be gold-diggers. I discovered too late that the first one was known in the community as “Diamond Tom” while the second had his hygienists hawk exotic health products and shamelessly expensive procedures. Finally, I found an honest and reliable man who provided me with great dental care for years. Unfortunately, he just retired. So now I’m searching again for a dental professional, preferably one with a conscience and some skill, and definitely one without a nickname or history of malpractice.


Bill Jones, a writer from Baltimore, Maryland, has had poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction appear in numerous small press magazines and journals across the country. Apprentice House Press has published two collections of his writing—At Sunset, Facing East (2016) and Still Life in a Hurricane (2019).

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