Sunday, May 11, 2014

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An Open Thank You To The Orthodontist Who Fixed My Mouth For Free

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Two weeks ago I bit into an apple and the permanent retainer I’d had in my mouth for 16 years busted loose. I held it in my hand. It was a thin wire, and now that it was no longer fixed to the backside of my bottom teeth, my mouth felt slimy and strange. And like most fathers do, the first thought I had was, “How much is this going to cost me?”

I have insurance, but it’s through the equivalent of a dental HMO. It’s affordable, but it takes forever to get in to see someone, and they always seem to be finding ways to screw me. Not paying for this or that. Or, like when I called to make an appointment with an orthodontist, playing stupid.

The woman over the phone told me that if I didn’t get the retainer replaced, my teeth might go back to a primitive, jagged and ape-like,state, similar to the way they were before I went through three years of rubber bands and headgear (headgear made me very popular). She told me that replacing the retainer would most likely be covered, but she didn’t really know. The only way to know for sure was to go in o the orthodontist and see what they say.

The “most likely be covered” statement made me both optimistic and suspicious.  The optimism brought me in, but the suspicion made me feel like I was about to be the victim of some bait and switch, kind of like when I stupidly brought my car in for a “free brake inspection” only for them to tell me I needed $3,000 worth of brake work, an astronomical amount of money considering my car at the time couldn’t have been worth more than a grand. I didn’t pay them to do the work, but instead took the car to a friend and he changed my break pads for $50.

I went to my orthodontist appointment, checked in, and the first thing I asked was, “Is this going to be covered?”

The receptionist didn’t know. I felt like these people were determined to get me in the chair. Determined for the doctor to place his hands in my mouth, get halfway through the procured, and then, once things were at a tipping point, once we were far enough down the road that turning around would be farther than simply reaching our destination, they would tell me how much it was all going to cost.

It wasn’t until I was in the dentist chair, feet up, leaning back, and mouth open, that the hygienist told me that my insurance wouldn’t cover the procedure. And I recall sitting there thinking about all the pain I went through to have a nice smile, and the sacrifice my mother (who was single at the time of my braces) went through for me to have straight teeth.  I thought about how all that could be for nothing if I didn’t pay to put this stupid wire back in.

In my hand was a sandwich bag that held my old retainer. I looked at it, and thought, how much could it cost to put this thing back in. Just a little glue, and 20 minutes of the doctor’s time. I threw some numbers around in my head, $20, $50, $100…

Obviously I was being naive.

“Well, how much is it going to cost, exactly?” I asked.

The hygienist poked around in the computer for a moment. Then she gave me a number, “$220.”

I nearly shit myself.

I don’t know about you, but for me, right then, $220 was a lot of money. I wanted to get angry. I wanted to tell them that I felt tricked to come in here. I wanted to start screaming. But I didn’t. Instead, I said this:

“Oh… Man. I don’t know. I mean, I work in education. I got two kids and one on the way. I just can’t do that. It’s just too much money.”

I didn’t ask for anything. I just leaned forward, put my right leg down, and was about to stand up and leave, when someone gripped my shoulder and pulled me back. He didn’t introduce himself. He didn’t say, “Hey, I’m the doctor. Sit down, and we will talk about it.” Or anything like that.

He just said, “Lay back for a moment. I’ll let you know when we start charging.”

I’d never met him before, although I’d been to this same office to have my teeth cleaned a few times. The doctor had olive skin and dark hair. He wore a good amount of cologne, and I must say, he was probably the best smelling doctor I’d ever met. He didn’t tell me where he was from, but his accent reminded me of a good friend of mine from graduate school who came to the US from India.

I will admit that I was very suspicious that I would get stuck with a bill, and I think he could see that, so he gave me a smile that seemed to say, “Just shut up and trust me.” Then he placed his hand on my cheast for a moment, his body gesture telling me to stay put.

He looked into my mouth, drilled off some glue from my teeth, had the hygienist help him hold the old retainer in place, and in about 20 minutes he was done. And as I sat up, I got the impression from the doctor, and the hygienists, they they’d done something like this before. Like I was coming in on some passive, long-standing, fight against the system.

The doctor took me into an office, and I sat across from him as he started typing on the computer.

“You work for a school district, or something?”

“No,” I said. “I work at the university. I work for a program that helps low-income students. Funny thing, with what they pay me, my kids would qualify for the program.”

It was silent for a moment. The doctor was still looking down at the computer. Then I asked him, “So am I going to still owe the $220?”

He stuck out his lower lip and shook his head, and I got the impression that he’d done this before. Perhaps he does it all the time.

“Are you going to get in trouble for this?” I asked.

This wasn’t his practice. He was an employee after all.

He smiled. “No,” he said. “Don’t worry about it. You got three kids?”

“Two and one on the way.” I said.

“I’m sure they’ll be needing braces soon. It’ll all work out.”

I repeatedly thanked him. I thought about doctors and affordability, and realized that sometimes, in this war on health care, that some doctors simply just want to help people.

People like me.

The doctor walked me to the door, and I paid my co-pay of $5. I gave him a hearty thank you, and shook his hand.

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Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, and a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His essays on parenting and marriage have been featured in New York Times Motherlode, Huffington Post Parents, Huffington Post Weddings, and The Good Men Project. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
Photo by Lucinda Higley