Fire seemed to follow me around in the early days.
Kate was my first assistant. She was personable and the patients loved her, a real asset for a young dentist starting out.And, although in hock to the devil, I was consummately proud of my shiny new office.
A classmate told me about a new technique he was using to relax patients: headphones connected to a tape player (remember cassettes?) so patients could listen to their choice of anything, from hard rock to classical, to help drown out the drill. I decided to give it a try.
Kate seated a stylish young lady who hadn’t slept the previous night, anticipating her upcoming root canal. “We’ll do our best to make you comfortable,” Kate said, softly placing her hand on Lori’s shoulder. “If you need a break, just raise your left hand and I’ll have the doctor stop.”
“Thanks.” She smiled crookedly, as the anesthetic was beginning to work. She settled down as Kate showed her how to thumb the volume knob; Lynyrd Skynyrd began to blare from the headset.
Kate finished arranging the instruments and laid several alcohol gauze pads on the counter. I lifted one of the ear pads and half-shouted, “You should be good and numb by now, Lori. We’ll go ahead and get started.”
Her hands trembled while she repositioned the bulky headphone. The preparation was uneventful and soon finished. Kate lifted her left ear pad. “Relax, Lori. The worst is over; no more drilling.” Lori’s once apprehensive eyes softly closed as her body slumped, totally relaxed. ♫…Sweet Home Alabama…♪
It was time to seal the canals with gutta percha and a condenser heated over an open flame, an archaic process probably hard to imagine for younger graduates. Safely maneuvering a red-hot branding iron into a small mouth could be a little dicey. A steady hand is the key. I thought about my klutzy classmate, Oleander Jacob, and hoped she referred out.
Kate was afraid to tightly press the match head with her finger to strike it, and an unproductive puff of smoke floated toward the ceiling. I glanced over my shoulder to see what the delay when she failed a second time. She seemed embarrassed and, with renewed determination, struck a third match, which finally lit. Kate fired up the Bunsen burner with a triumphant. Ever the cautious one, she placed the still burning match on a wet cloth—the alcohol gauze—to extinguish it.It immediately burst into flames.
Startled, she knocked into the blazing Bunsen can; it threatened to topple over, but remained upright. “Grab the gauze and throw it into the sink,” I said under my breath. Kate just stared at the fiery brand on the counter. All the while, Lori’s eyes remained closed in detached reverie ♫…Lord, I’m comin’ home to you…♪
“In the sink. Now!” I quietly exclaimed.
Catatonic, Kate blinked back to life and snatched the flaming fabric but immediately let go. It fell short of the sink,onto a dry paper towel. The volatile liquid diffused and spread like, well, like wildfire.
Becoming ever more animated, Kate grabbed the unlit half of the towel and gave a mighty heave. Fanned by the breeze, it traced a fiery arc over the sink and landed against the wall.
Who knew that wallpaper could burn so readily?
As the conflagration licked up the operatory wall I conjured visions of my brand-new office ignominiously disappearing into the shrouds of hell. As quickly, yet calmly, as I could, I got up and brushed the bonfire into the sink, filled a green mixing bowl with water, and splashed it on the wall, a handy lesson learned in freshman lab when Oleander’s hair caught on fire.
With pyrotechnic disaster narrowly averted, Kate looked relieved and a little sheepish. But Lori’s nostrils flared like a sniffing bloodhound. “Is something burning?”
“It’s nothing,” I smiled. “We’re almost finished.”
Thankfully, she drifted off and we closed without further incident. Lori later commented on how much she liked the headphones. “You and Kate make a great team.”
“Thanks,” we said in unison.
Yep, Kate worked out great. And I married her.
Jim Rhea, DMD