Overheard at the Dentist

BY ERICA

I came across my job by accident. I wasn’t particularly looking for a part-time job, but one day my friend came to me, and being the naïve, capricious person I am, I accepted—completely uninformed of what the job entailed or how long exactly this job would last. One summer turned into two years, and here I still am, as a file clerk at a dental office.

I soon found out that my job did not entail much. I was, essentially, told to take things out of and put things into alphabetical order, 3-4 days a week. I filed patient charts. Pulled patient charts. Prepared patient charts. Labeled patient charts. I sat at my little desk in the corner, click-clacking away on the electronic typewriter, only interrupted whenever someone came over to use the fax machine beside me.

Each day, during the mechanical humdrum of it all, my mind would drift towards other things while my hands typed and scribbled and paperclipped away. College. Homework. Things I needed to do. Dinner. I got my best solutions to my problems while sitting at that desk. I became the most motivated to do homework while sitting at that desk. Ideas of all the great things I could do seemed to come to me when I had the least opportunity to do them, leaving me to jot it down on my phone and hope I rediscover it at the opportune time.

Sometimes, I’d snap out of my daydreaming to listen to the conversations between the patients and the receptionists. Even though it has been such a large amount of time since they last saw each other, the patient and receptionist chat like old friends, picking up exactly where they left off six months ago, and catching up each other up on their respective lives. And then, forty-five minutes later, they part with a cheery “see you in 6 months!” and the patient goes his way. I don’t think you’d even be able to tell they only talk twice a year simply by the nature of their conversation.

But it’s a beautiful cycle. The patient comes in, on the same day of the week, at his usual time, greets the usual receptionist, and sees his usual hygienist and doctor. They chat, he pays his bills, and then he’s on his way. Every single day there’s a new group of patients—more small talk to be made, stories to tell, and lives to catch up on.

It’s interesting to take note of the things that people deem important enough to share about their life in the small amount of time they’re given. If you had ten minutes to talk to someone that you haven’t seen in half a year, what would you say? Some people go all in, giving short narratives of every trip and experience and meal they’ve had for the past several months, complete with a slideshow. Others passionately discuss the latest football game. Others make small talk and nothing else.

Sometimes I wonder. What kinds of things would I tell people if I only had a short amount of time? Would I tell them about my life? What’s happened recently? How can you possibly satisfactorily summarize the past half year into 5-10 minutes? Would I even talk about my life, or would I talk about something else?

The dynamic of the patients that come to the dental office each day is truly marvelous. Some are introverted, others highly extroverted. Some crack jokes; others would just like to get the business done and be on their way. Sometimes I can’t help but outwardly laugh or snort or snicker at the conversations going on—some people are the level of witty and benevolent and charming that I aspire to be one day. It truly is something, listening to the stories of this broad variety of people of different ages, from different backgrounds, different hometowns and childhoods and jobs, different personalities and goals and dreams, all united by a single commonality: the possession of teeth.

And at the end of every single appointment, the patient makes his next appointment, and goes on his way. Some, after scheduling their next appointment, leave with the frequent joke of “see you then! Hopefully not before!” and leave, others rush out as quickly as possible. But the months pass, and before you know it, each patient resurfaces, with new life experiences and stories to share.

“Before you marry someone, look through their birth records and family history so you know what kind of a mess you’re getting into. I wish I did that with my husband–now look at me. It’s too late.”

–Best piece of advice I’ve ever received from a patient

(PSA: You should go to the dentist at least twice a year)

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