Wednesday, April 23, 2014

102 Years Old, and Counting

Have you ever made a house call? Probably not; dentists seldom get the chance.

Kate and I moved to a home in Gloyd that backed up to an elderly couple’s farm. Like their parents, Tom and Selma were college educated, unlike most other local people. Shortly after I opened my home office, they hosted a three-day family reunion, including a Canadian branch that had escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad.

Selma was classy with a gentle spirit. An accomplished artist, her works were displayed internationally. In contrast, and despite a successful detective agency in Chicago, Tom’s heart and mannerisms never left the country. He always wore the quintessential overalls, flannel shirt, and work boots common to our rural area. His guttural southern drawl complemented his missing eye, shot out during a stakeout gone wrong.

Tom phoned my office late one afternoon. “Selma’s mom has got a real bad toothache. Been in bed and won’t eat. For the last two days she hasn’t had anything to drink.”

“Bring her over around five, Tom. I’ll take a look.”

“Aren’t you listening, doc? She’s confined to bed. Ya gotta come over here.”

“That’s fine; I’ll stop by after we close up for the day and …” He’d already hung up. Gruff old coot. Well, anything for Selma.

Kate was excited about a house call. I, however, was a little nervous. After all, Tom was a big, no-nonsense guy. We grabbed a sterile pack containing mirror, explorer, and perio prob, some gauze, latex gloves, a small flashlight, and a prescription pad.

Kate and I were greeted by growling dogs that sounded ominous in the dark. “Gi on outta ‘ere,” someone shouted. My heart skipped a beat as I quickly turned to leave; but Tom was talking to the dogs, not us. He opened the creaky screen door and stood aside as Selma welcomed us. “Thanks so much for coming. Can I get you anything? Coffee or tea?”

“No, thank you.” We wanted to get right down to business but Tom insisted on showing off his wife’s art work displayed throughout the house: pastoral scenes depicting horses, cattle, red barns, farmhouses, and family picnics near the pond.

“They stole my farm for that damn lake and then wanted to tax me for lakefront property,” he growled. He had shown those paintings to the assessor.“You don’t see any nautical scenes, do you?” He didn’t pay extra taxes.

He finally took us down a long hallway, into a bedroom where Selma’s mom lay supine in a hospital bed. Kate gasped. Grandma was stone still, her hands folded just so on her chest. I almost imagined a lily delicately placed in her intertwined fingers. I’m not here to pronounce her dead, am I? I’m just a dentist, for crying out loud.I looked to Kate for guidance, but found none.

Tom explained. “Started with a bad toothache. She stopped eating days ago and now won’t drink anything. I can’t get her mouth open to look. You might try forcing it a little.”

“I’ll try, Tom.” How hard can that be? The old lady couldn’t weigh more than 89 lbs. But when I touched her mouth, she sprang to life, shaking her head and tightly pursing her lips. I softly coaxed but Tom leaned in and whispered that Mother was a little hard of hearing.

He bent close to her ear and screamed, “Mother, it’s the dentist!” Startled, I stumbled backwards into Kate, catching her off balance. She fell against the wall and knocked into a picture, which crashed to the floor. It was a portrait of Selma’s mom. Mortified, I looked at Tom, who stared at Kate while she picked up the picture. I apologized; he glanced at me and grinned.

In the meantime, Mother had opened enough for a quick glance. Her teeth were in pretty good shape except for the one that needed to be extracted. I called an oral surgeon who asked me why she couldn’t be moved. I laughed in the phone. “Bill, you’ve got to come over here and see for yourself. And don’t worry about the dogs.”

He soon arrived and I chuckled softly while he gazed on the surreal scene, because Dr. Bill was seldom lost for words. He had Selma’s mom taken by ambulance to a hospital where she was rehydrated and the tooth was extracted.

A few months later, I saw our neighbor out back in his horse field and asked how his mother-in-law was doing. “Her? Oh, she’ll live.” Selma’s mom was 102 years old, and counting.

I have never since been on a house call. But I would recommend one if you’re contacted by someone in need and the situation allows. My one-time visit possibly saved a life—she was frail and terribly dehydrated—which prepared me for subsequent missions overseas. Stepping away from the comfort zone of my high-tech office reminded me of the true meaning of the healing arts.

Jim Rhea, DMD

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