My office attempts to stay on schedule. I believe that the patient’s time is just as important as mine. If you want people to respect your time, you have to respect theirs. I’m not saying we always run according to schedule; things do come up: retaking an impression, squeezing in an emergency, the patient won’t get numb, or…the previous person was ridiculously late but I saw him anyway.
However, there are some folks who are perpetually late. It’s often that poor soul in the waiting room whose eyes shift anxiously, his knees bouncing uncontrollably. They just don’t want to be here and will do anything to delay the inevitable. Your waiting room furniture should be super-sturdy to take the abuse.
My wife’s high school classmate was a thick-skinned jock who hadn’t been to the dentist since leaving her parent’s home. She recently landed a good job that not only offered medical but also full dental coverage. She called my wife, Karen, one evening. “That guy you work for any good?” she asked.
“Well, I trust him. You do know we’re married?”
“How ’bout I come in for a checkup tomorrow?”
“I don’t think we have anything tomorrow, Charlene. Why don’t you call the office to set up an appointment?”
“OK. But I thought ya could slip me in, being my friend an’ all.”
“You’ll see Tonia, the hygienist, first. I’m not sure of her schedule though,” Karen hedged.
A couple weeks later, during her follow-up scaling, our hygienist reiterated that shehad quite a few cavities. “Charlene, some of these are very deep. If Dr. Rhea doesn’t get to them soon you could be looking at root canals or even losing them.”
Charlene wasn’t fazed. “Jus’ do wha’ cha gat ta do, doc,” she announced after I corroborated Tonia’s findings. Charlene’s lively wit was loud, forward, and good-natured. However, without steroids, she still would’ve never contended for the East German Olympic team.
Charlene was never late for appointments, which was good for us because she needed several visits. She’d done well—none had developed into endodontics—and today she was just returning for her six-month checkup with Tonia…except she was a half-hour late—which was highly unusual. A call to her work revealed that she had left 45 minutes ago, plenty of time to get to her appointment.
Suddenly the waiting room door slammed open and Charlene blasted in, wild-eyed. Her strong, athletic body bulled straight back into the treatment area without being invited. She knew she was late. Sweat poured down her pale face. Her whole body shook while pacing the hallway. She tried to gather her composure but babbled incoherently. “Big flatbed…traffic jam…red light…holy s___!”
Karen grabbed her arm. “Slow down, Char. Tell me what happened.” Karen was brave. I was afraid Charlene might belt me if I touched her; I had no delusions that she couldn’t take me down.
Karen coaxed her into my private office. “Calm down, Charlene. Have a seat and tell us about it.” Charlene sat but hopped right back up, unable to keep still. Her voice shook. “Ca…can’t believe I’m alive! Karen, I could’ve been killed, or worse!”
Her story slowly unfolded. She’d left work early to get gas, which took forever. She was already late when she pulled into bumper-to-bumper traffic on Rockville Pike; a Good Samaritan finally let her in.
When in a hurry, it seems like you hit every red light. When it turned green, she gunned it toward a flatbed stopped at the next signal. While gauging her distance by the vehicle’s rear bumper, she suddenly heard a horrendous crash and her body jerked forward. Shattered safety glass sprayed her front seat and the seatbelt left a catawampus bruise across her chest.
Her mind in a whirl, she stood on the brake long after her compact car had stopped. Confused, her heart beating wildly, she slowly turned to see a huge steel “I” beam within an inch of her head; it had stopped just short of the backseat. Although it had the requisite red flag tied to its end, she hadn’t noticed its futile waving in the slight breeze of this sultry summer day. Now it didn’t wave at all, just dangled limp over the rear seat.
“Why don’t we reschedule your hygiene appointment, Char?” Karen suggested.
But she declined. “I’m here now. Let’s just do it.” I guess she didn’t want all that effort to go for nothing. I wanted to check out her car in the parking lot, but didn’t; I was running behind schedule now. She calmed down and almost fell asleep in Tonia’s chair. Now that’s what I call relaxed.
Charlene was never again late for an appointment. And I’m a lot more forgiving when people are late. Usually—not always—there’s a valid reason. And I like to give them the benefit of the doubt. It can mess up my schedule, but there are far worse things in life. Charlene was fine, but I wonder about any nightmares.
Jim Rhea, DMD