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Facing the Fear of the Dentist

By Kathy Leese Staff Writer

Sandy Brandewie Pitts remembers going to the dentist when she was a little girl. It was a visit that left her so afraid, that as an adult, shsse had a hard time getting the dental care she needed.

Brandewie Pitts, now 58, said she was about 7 or 8 at the time. "I remember that my dad took me." Brandewie Pitts also remembered her dad wasn't allowed to go in the room with her. She was alone and afraid with a dentist who was determined to use the anesthetic ether to sedate her.

When Brandewie Pitts became upset, she said the dentist told her,"OK, you asked for it," and squirted ether all over her face. Brandewie Pitts' dad came in the room and told the dentist,"that's not nice to do to a small child." That is all Brandewie Pitts remembered. She was unconscious. Her dad took her home, but it left her afraid of dentists.

A licensed practical nurse, Brandewie Pitts said that years later, she was involved in a couple of bad car accidents, including one eight years ago on Interstate 75. Doctors thought she had closed head trauma, but fortunately, she did not. What she had were dental problems. Even though she already had some problems, she said after the accident, "I could tell my mouth was really making a lot of changes."

In spite of those changes, her fear of dentists kept her from seeking help. Even her mother gently suggested maybe Brandewie Pitts should see a dentist. It was her niece's approaching wedding that helped her face her fear. "I didn't want to see all my family and have my mouth look so bad." Brandewie Pitts had seen an ad for Dr. Jeffery Van Treese, a Sidney dentist. She still remembers the first call. She spoke with Connie Taylor, Van Treese's receptionist. She told Connie she had "a childhood fear."

Brandewie Pitts said despite Taylor's reassurance, she could not bring herself to make an appointment after the first call. "I think there was a second and a third call," she said. Finally, she was able to make the appointment. "I don't know if it was the tone of her (Taylor's) voice or her reassurance that they deal with that (fear)" that finally helped her find the courage she needed.

With broken teeth and cavities, she felt like she was taking the first step. As a medical professional, she knew she had to do something. "I had a public job, I saw people daily. I'm a professional person. I should know better, right?"

As Brandewie Pitts traveled to Van Treese's office at 2627 N. Broadway Ave., "my hands were ... sweating." She said, "I remember getting in the office and thinking ... I made it." But on the way there, she struggled with her fear. "I thought, 'Sandy, this is ridiculous.'"

Even though she "felt like I was in the right place," there was still her fear to overcome. "I remember my toes cramped up and my hands sweating, but I felt like everything was going to be OK."

Brandewie Pitts shared her memories with Van Treese and his staff. "I told them it was a childhood memory ... and it was time to do something about that." She said Van Treese "took the time to ask me what I was afraid of and why." She said he gave her options and a sense of control. She said he told her, "we're going to take a look at this" and "we'll let you do the choosing."

Brandewie Pitts said that approach helped her. "They bent over backwards," she said of the staff's help. Brandewie Pitts said in spite of the condition of her teeth, "He (Van Treese) did not lecture me. He was very interested in why I was afraid and how he could help me with that." She said she was never made to feel embarrassed.

Initially, over a month to six weeks, Van Treese worked with Brandewie Pitts to create a look that would allow her to go to the wedding with confidence. It took "about a year and a half process" to finish the work on her teeth. "It was foolish for me to carry that (fear) through life." Brandewie Pitts said once she got started, "I ... couldn't wait to keep going with it. I felt kind of disappointed I hadn't taken care of it earlier."

Brandewie Pitts' story doesn't surprise Van Treese. A graduate of the Ohio State University College of Dentistry, the local dentist said he has a "special interest" in helping patients with fear.

"Gradually, you develop a trust relationship," he said of his patients, noting a lot of fear is "triggered by an experience in the past."

Van Treese said, "We reassure them (patients) they're not the worst we've ever seen," meaning they don't lecture patients. "Nobody wants to be lectured."

Karen Stueve, a dental hygienist with 27 years of experience who works with Van Treese, said, "I've had patients tell us they've been yelled at by other dentists."

Van Treese added, "It doesn't have to be that way."

As a result of their work with patients who are afraid, Van Treese's staff has developed ways to make the visit as easy as possible. "We customize the appointment to the patient. If a person has a lot of fear or a lot of questions," Van Treese said, they take time to talk with them.

Van Treese said the first visit for a patient at his practice includes sitting down and talking with them, doing an exam and X-rays. A second visit, the consultation, allows Van Treese to talk with patients about problems and possible solutions and Stueve added, they tell patients "what the good things are."

"There's all kinds of ways to work things into a budget," Van Treese said of the cost. A treatment plan is put together and "once we have that plan, we can take as long as needed." Patients are part of the decision making process.

In the area of hygiene, Stueve said many patients "hate the picking and scraping" during cleanings. She uses an ultrasonic cleaner for their patients, referred to as comfort cleaning. "People are not sore after they have the ultrasonic."

Injections are as painless as possible. A topical salve is applied before the injection is given, so it is less painful.

Patients are encouraged to use a hand signal if they need a break during dental work. Stueve said, "Even if I'm in the chair, he'll tell me to raise my hand if I need him to stop."

There are small things the staff has found make a difference. Pillows are warmed and placed under the patient's neck if they like. Sun glasses are available and patients can bring iPods and CD players along with their favorite music to appointments.

With links to COPD, diabetes and heart disease, as well as self-esteem issues, good dental health is more important than ever, but according to Stueve, there are still people who are afraid to see a dentist. As a result, communication is important.

Dr. Lee Huskey, a local dentist agreed. Huskey said there are "very, very few people" who don't have a fear of dentistry. Huskey said when a person comes through the door of the dentist, "that's a big leap for many people."

Huskey also knows communication is key. "The more you are able to communicate those fears," he said, the more a dentist can help.

Van Treese said if a patient has a lot of fear, he has a suggestion. "If you really need some courage, pray that you get the courage and trust that you'll find the person to help you." Van Treese said when a patient is afraid, he has sometimes prayed with them to help them through the experience if they want. It's an approach he knows can help. Van Treese enjoys watching a patient's life and their appearance change. "It gives you great pleasure ... giving someone their smile back." It's a big deal, he said. "We're here to help people, No. 1."

Brandewie Pitts is not afraid anymore. "I wouldn't be afraid to have anything done. I feel like I've done myself a favor." She no longer feels like she has to hide her smile. People now talk about what a beautiful smile she has. "The situation will not go away on its own. It will only get worse with time," Brandewie Pitts said of dental problems.

Brandewie Pitts hopes people will read her story and at least talk with a dentist. "It took me two or three times to call. If you are truly interested in having it done ... you need to keep trying to find the courage," she said. Her smile tells the rest of the story.

 

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Reprinted with permission of the Sidney Daily News. Original publication date: September 2, 2008

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