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How a dentalphobic dentist helps patients cope with fear of the tooth doctor

“We get more new patients who are unnerved than people who are calm and composed,” Marianne Schaefer says.

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Chicagoans is a first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford. This week's Chicagoan is Marianne Schaefer, 61, dentist.

Maybe 10 percent of people floss. One lady asked me for extra floss one time, and I was all excited that my message got across, and she said, 'It's the best thing for hanging pictures.'

"I don't like flossing myself. I personally like using a toothpick in a more aggressive way, scalloping the base of the teeth. But use a plastic one. You don't want to use wood, and you don't want to use paper clips. I did that, and I really injured myself one time; I poked into the tissue and ended up with an abscess of the gum, and then I had to admit to what I did and it was severely embarrassing.

"I do notice people's teeth, but I don't say anything if I see things that are unaesthetic. David Bowie's teeth used to bother me so much that I would stand up and go right up to the television and think, 'What would I do?' Somebody ended up doing a symposium about David Bowie's orthodontia at a conference. I was really glad to have been able to go to that, because it was made clear which teeth had to be removed and what was done to improve the color. My obsession was answered. And after all this, he met Iman and he got the lady of his life, so there you go.

"My BA was in psychology, and I think it was probably the best initial training I could have done. I had a case years ago where a person who had been abused as a child could not speak to a medical professional or a dentist, so she had to use a hand puppet to communicate with me. I think it was supposed to be a turtle. We established this rapport where I would speak to the puppet and explain things or ask permission to do service. I felt fully engaged with it.

"We finished all the dental work, and I invited the person to join me for dinner to celebrate, and when she came to dinner, she came without the puppet, and I said, 'I don't know how I feel about this. I feel odd.' She said, 'Well, I don't need the puppet.' I said, 'I'm glad that you don't, but I will miss her very much.'

"We get more new patients who are unnerved than people who are calm and composed. At least, our office seems to get them. I tell them ahead of time that if they need to end the appointment prematurely, it's OK, it's no problem for me. People who are really fearful, I'll sometimes say, 'I'm going to work for the count of ten. Will you be OK for the count of ten?' We used to run a program where therapists would bring their [dentalphobic] patients to the office. Some of them were so fearful they couldn't even sit in the dental chair at first.

"I'm a dentalphobic myself. When I go the dentist, they tell me to sit still. They say, 'You can stop curling your toes.' Then they look in my mouth and say, 'How did this happen?' And I say, 'The usual way. I was eating Jolly Ranchers, and I bit down and it pulled the cap off.' They're like, 'Why are you doing this? Why?'"   v

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