Her apology surprised me, but more than that, the frank and simple explanation. I thought back to the familiar dental offices I'd frequented in the United States, where each examining room was separate from the next and "patient confidentiality" almost as important as preserving, at all costs, the impression of the doctor's complete competence; no one would ever have admitted a problem with another patient, let alone name it. J. and I cast glances at each other, and looked around at the room we were in, separated from the hallway by a partial partition, open at the top, and connected on the side, behind the chair I was in, to the next room through a wide opening. Through it we could hear the whirr of a drill and the sound of running water, and voices we could have understood if we knew the same language.
A computer screen was on my right, above a tiny desk area with a dark blue ceramic pencil-holder in the shape of a tooth. Another tooth with a smiling face on it, feet below, and arms holding brushes, stood on the windowsill - a minor annoyance - and on the walls were two posters of before-and-after close-ups of cosmetic dental reconstructions, the lips pulled back to clearly show the gums and teeth. One of these included two smiling full-face views of an ordinary, plump but happy-looking middle-aged woman, with her former gappy smile and the more perfect one "after."
That was the thing I had observed over and over in this society, I thought to myself: this acknowledgment that people are not perfect, they have problems, that medical care is designed to help people and not add to their burden by subtly criticizing them or making them feel guilty or ashamed, or old and falling-apart. That and the fact that people seemed to have so much less need to paper-over reality and protect themselves behind legal walls like confidentiality and long definitions of privacy. With little money to spend on art and matching upholstery in order to disguise medical establishments as living rooms, everyone is thrown together in waiting areas, people walk down hallways in their hospital gowns without embarrassment, procedures are less veiled from patients. A sort of natural, relaxed, matter-of-factness runs hand-in-hand with genuine friendliness, and since no one is worried about being sued they tend to be much freer about extending themselves as human beings. The woman in the photos on the wall was not especially pretty, either before or after, but she looked happy and self-assured, and perfectly willing to show off her smile to a parade of strangers.
All of this was running through my head as I lay in the chair waiting for the doctor to come in, which she did presently.
She was a woman about my age, with bleached blonde hair and a smile behind the light blue surgical mask that she pulled to the side to talk to me. "So. Tell me!" she began, and I explained the problem as concisely as I could after we agreed upon which language to use. She was competent and thorough, and I relaxed as she carefully examined the area. She stepped back then so she could look at my whole face. "It is localized," she said, "around the surface of the implant post. I think cleaning is difficult, n'est-ce-pas?" I nodded. "So I will give you a small brush and show you what to do for now, and a bottle of antiseptic rinse. I think you should stop the antibiotics, this is what was giving you the severe headache. We can change it - I'll give you another prescription - but don't take it unless you get worse, which I don't think will happen."
J. got up, then, and told me he had to put more money in the meter and would be back soon, "I can see you're in good hands," he said to me, touching my shoulder and smiling at the dentist as he went out the door.
(to be continued)