This morning, Andie and I talked about medical anomalies. She’s had her own experience of being diagnosed with a rare illness and after she shared her story, I realized that I had a similar (though less serious) experience. This experience is important to me because it has changed the way I view medicine, dentists, and doctors in general. It has also made me aware of the medical industry’s lack of knowledge surrounding women’s health, hormonal issues, and the lack of female physicians available to easily identify with and diagnose everyday women.
When I was in the seventh or eighth grade my gums started swelling. After a while, the swelling caused them to bleed. The discomfort and sensitivity this produced caused me a lot of pain, stress and fear. I had no clue as to what the hell was wrong with me.
I’ve always been on top of my dental health. Growing up, I never had cavities (I still don’t) and I always brushed by teeth twice a day (with no exceptions). My parents used to make fun of me because I would often brush my teeth for too long. My hypochondria would occasionally affect my tooth brushing and if I felt like my teeth were unclean after brushing them, I would brush them a second time. In other words, my dental health was always great. After things got serious with my gums, I took a trip with my mom to the local dentist. He had no idea what was wrong with me and referred me to a specialist.
The specialist was friendly, but his office was cold. I was put off by the expensive decor and the rubber plants. This dentist reminded me of a fox. He had a little scruff and he looked professional and successful but he didn’t tell me much. He sent a sample of my gums to a laboratory somewhere far away and I had to wait a while for the results. During my next appointment, I found out that the results showed no real abnormalities and the dentist was stumped. He decided to send me to another specialist.
My next appointment wasn’t in a fancy office building. I was actually a bit offended by the typical aesthetic of the dental office I was sent to. It was located in an outdoor strip mall. Based purely on first judgements, I had no hope for this appointment at all.
The inside of the office was extremely kid-friendly and photos of smiling dental patients hung on the walls. It seemed like a pretty happy place for a dental office. After checking in, the receptionist called my name and I was escorted to a medium sized room. After a short wait, the dentist walked in. This time, the dentist was a woman. I didn’t think much of this until she started asking me questions about my body. When she looked at my gums and I told her my age, she asked me questions about hormones and puberty:
Was I pregnant?
Was I menstruating?
Did I smoke?
Did I use contraception?
None of the other dentists had asked me these things. None of the other dentists had really talked to me at all.
After examining my mouth and testing for cancer (that was a scary moment), the dentist pulled out a huge machine so she could take some oral photographs. “You’re going in the textbooks,” she said. I felt pretty special. The dentist told me that she had only ever seen my condition in pregnant woman. She assured me that the condition was not a lack of oral hygiene, rather, it was a hormonal issue. And she was right.
After the success of that visit, I was referred to a fabulous dentist at a hospital in Toronto. He was a leader in his department and was truly amazing. He told me he had never seen anyone like me but he did all that he could to help my situation. He took a look at the anomaly I was dealing with (I was in my early teens and had the mouth of some pregnant woman) and after medications and oral rinses were prescribed, we decided that oral surgery would greatly benefit my situation.
I remember feeling like frankenstein during the first surgery. (Note that the first surgery was only on one side of my mouth.) I had requested to not be put to sleep and so I closed my eyes for most of the procedure. When I opened my eyes to peak, out of curiosity, I saw blood, dental interns, and my dentists’ hands working away. My mother was in the room with me, on a stool by the wall, and I could see that she had turned her face away from the situation. At some point during the surgery, the nurse seated beside me grabbed my hand and held it tight. Her hand felt warm and comforting and I squeezed it back. If she hadn’t been there to do that, the surgery would have felt much more alienating.
A few years after the surgery (it worked!), I found myself in high school, surrounded by texts and extracurriculars, and I didn’t have as much time to see the dentist. The gums on the other half of my mouth were still irritated by my weird condition and eventually needed surgery also.
My step-mom and I found a nearby oral surgeon with one of those expensive looking, rubber plant wielding, type of dental offices. His office had televisions that played MTV while the dentist was looking at your teeth and I was forever grateful for this. But the dentist didn’t completely understand my medical history or my condition and every time I saw him, he would nag me about brushing my teeth. He persuaded me to buy an expensive toothbrush that might fix my dental problems but even after using the special toothbrush, he told me I wasn’t doing enough for my dental health. (Here’s what I have to say to that: I have a fucking weird form of gingivitis that is not MY FAULT, Mr. Man.) The second surgery, didn’t go as well as the first one; even though the office floor was marble and the receptionist had rubber plants. Even though I could watch MTV.
I am happy to say that today, my little anomaly is over and done with (knock on wood). After all of the surgeries, I now have receding gums, and this presents new anxieties. But I don’t look back on my past dental experiences with sadness. I mostly look back and wonder why the fuck it took so long for me to be diagnosed. As a women’s studies major, I’m inclined to relate my experience to a lack of awareness of women’s bodies and women’s health. I am forever grateful to the dentist with the less-expensive office who got it right (who understood my body and what it was reacting to), and I am grateful to the specialist who came after her, he understood me as well. Some health professionals are conscious of intersectionality, and they definitely deserve more praise.