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'Twas the Night Before Christmas and at the Dentist's Office All was not Well!


'Twas the week before Christmas and all through the office all the mice were excited about the upcoming holiday. The Christmas cards had all been sent and the trees decorated. Presents had been carefully chosen and wrapped. The patients were all anxious to have some last minute dental work completed before their end of the year benefits ran out. So the receptionists were busy trying to schedule the work and fit in the college students and other children that were to be soon off from school. Visions of W-2's, year-end money shuffling, and the Christmas party were in their heads.

All of the sudden as our Dentist was taking out the trash, there arose a foreboding sign that He might be in for a crash! Well to understand this story better we had better look back. Back to a dentist that was a very fortunate soul but at the same time perhaps not appreciating his gifts as he should.

He was taught well in dental school to be a perfectionist. Actually, that was in his nature. Dealing with people and biological systems were very frustrating and stress producing. The lack of control of outcomes because of variations in biological systems and patient compliance caused this stress. He was able to cope with these stresses but as the years had gone by the stress was taking its toll. Recently, more insurance company interference, malpractice liabilities and government regulations had made him feel almost paranoid about all these rules and exposure. You see, a control freak by nature really can't tolerate all these unknown powers swirling around him. The myriad of unknowns tend to simply drive him crazy. So many people and situations could control his destiny. He felt powerless in many of these situations. Ahh, more stress.

Add to work stress the fact that he was starting the middle years of his life. His children were dealing with the difficult late high school and college years. His parents were starting to become more dependent on him. He had a sister that was disabled and presented some unique and complicated problems. His wife had a medical condition that caused her to be weak and tired.

In his personal life he had done some things right. He had been attentive to his family and deeply involved in his church. He had been recently disillusioned at church about 2 years before (after 15 very dedicated years). After being president of the congregation and experiencing some of the uglier sides of organized religion, his faith in organized religion, not God, had been somewhat damaged.

The Dr. started focusing on himself and his problems. He began to hate to go to work. To others this would seem silly. After all, he was an excellent dentist technically, very good with patients. Many people flocked to his office. He was extremely financially successful. Why would he hate to go to the office?

Basically, he was somewhat out in the wilderness. Looking around not really sure what direction he should go. When these compulsive perfectionist types aren't sure where to go with their life, they become overly involved in repetitive activity, in this dentist's case work, work, work.

So let's go back to the trash episode! Our typical dentist type just began to experience some weakness in his legs as he carried the trash cans to the street. Later that evening he noticed a slight numbness in his fingers. When he awoke to go to work the next morning his fingers definitely felt numb. He was becoming concerned! As the day went along he noticed some difficulty walking. He could walk but his timing just seemed off in his step. Well, that was it, he called his trusty doctor. The doctor advised that he make an appointment with a neurologist. Our dentist called and could only get an appointment in a month. As he continued his day he became more anxious. He finally called a friend, an orthopedic surgeon, to see if his friend could get him an earlier appointment. Well his friend said he would be right over and check into our dentist's condition. Yes, his friend came right to his office and told him that he should get right to the MRI machine. He called and fortunately they had an opening from a cancellation for that evening. His friend also set up another type of MRI and a muscle and nerve testing session for the following week.

Our dentist finished the day. The numbness was getting so bad he knew he had to cancel the patients scheduled for the next day. Fortunately, the day was only a half day since Christmas was so close. Not only was he more numb but his speech was affected. He talked as though he had a cleft palate. He missed the staff party that night to go to the MRI. When he arrived at the imaging center he had his first experience of what it must be like to be less than normal---- because of his difficulity speaking the nurse treated him with some disdain and acted as though she thought he was of subnormal intelligence. He had to taste his first experience of not having the respect that always went along with his title and education.

He went home and in the wee hours of the morning listened to some music and sat in fear and cried. Christmas plans were changed. Family called and wished him well. He waited for results and became weaker as the days went on. Finally, the day after Christmas he became so weak that his stomach became distended and this occurrence prompted him to have his wife drive him to the emergency room. He was shocked to find out that not only was the hospital going to admit him but they wanted him in intensive care! They moved up the other tests.

Some of the nurses in intensive care turned out to be his patients. They stopped in to say Hi. He didn't look very presentable and he couldn't talk correctly. He was touched by everyone's concern and humbled by the experience. Actually, he needed a good dose of the humbles. Some of the thoughts that went through his mind as he lay there waiting to find out his fate included:

As he became more paralyzed and weak he thought about his quadriplegic friend who had passed away a few years earlier. He had a new even greater respect for his courage.

Amazingly, the world seemed to get along just fine without him.

Going to work didn't seem like such a bad idea.

Although he didn't welcome the thought of death, it didn't really scare him. He WAS afraid of a slow and suffering path to death's door. He was dismayed that he might not be around to help his children and spouse.

One of his biggest fears was that this condition was caused by some type of brain tumor. His nurse that accompanied him to the next MRI seemed somewhat worried about that also. She talked to him about some difficulties her daughter had experienced during her dental visits. He offered some suggestions and knew that he could help her if he would get better. That made him think about how the dreaded (at least lately) work that he did really gave him the opportunity to heal and comfort so many other people. He thought about what a wonderful gift of fulfillment and returned love he was privileged to experience each day at work. He felt he had focused on the stresses of his days and not appreciated how wonderful his opportunities had been.

Well, the next day the results were available. He had Gillian Barre syndrome. A condition whose cause was unknown. The syndrome causes the neurons of the sensory and motor nerves to become demylienated so they don't conduct the nerve impulses to activate muscles or sense touch, hot, cold, and pain. The doctor expected the dentist to get gradually better which he did. He was off work for about a month then started a limited schedule. After returning to work he would become tired easily. His doctor told him he may never regain his former stamina. However, he did over the course of the next year, regain his normal strength and stamina. He also learned how lucky he was to have recovered so completely and quickly. Some patients require a respirator to be able to breath and some never return to normal.

He did go through some changes after his experience. He is now a humbler man, more aware of his worth as a human being. He understands to a much greater degree his worth as a lovable person, one with the ability to pass along love and caring to others. His worth is not based on what he does but who he is as a person. He views his job as an opportunity to heal and care for others rather than a personal monument to his value in society. He works less hours so that he can function at a level of patience and skill that are his best. He tries not to dwell on the things of his life that he can't control. He leaves those problems to a higher power. He still slips from these goals from time to time!

Our dentist in this story came to me at this time of year to share his story, not for sympathy but to help other dentists to be unshackled from their self inflicted stress. He felt this time of year, with the promise of the season, would be an appropriate time to realize the great blessings we have as dentists. And remind us to be humble for our own good as well as the good of our families and patients. Lastly, he wanted us to use our healing gifts wisely.


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