Monday, January 16, 2017


Every time I have a dental appointment and I’m lying there in the chair, watching the dental assistant handing the different tools to the dentist, mixing up filling material, and then using all sorts of gadgets and gizmos to make the fillings set, I can’t help but think back to the Dark Ages, when I had a very short career as a dental assistant.  

I’m still not certain how I even got the job, considering that when I went for the interview, half of the other interviewees were wearing medical smocks, which told me they probably already were working as assistants elsewehere, but wanted to work in a newer, more modern office. I, on the other hand, didn’t even know a bicuspid from a molar.

During the interview, when I divulged my total lack of knowledge to the dentist, he didn’t seem fazed. He assured me I would be provided with plenty of on-the-job training.  

The next thing I knew, there I was, training for the job. But as it turned out, the girl I was hired to replace had to leave the position even sooner than expected, so the poor dentist ended up stuck with only me…half-trained. 

Fortunately, back then, there really wasn’t all that much for me to learn about dentistry because it still was fairly basic. There were white fillings for the front teeth and silver fillings for the back teeth…and a lot of tooth yanking because root canals weren’t yet very popular. In fact, I remember once asking the dentist exactly what a root canal was and his description made it sound as if the procedure should have been performed by the Marquis de Sade in a torture chamber with the patient strapped down to a table.

So not surprisingly, most people opted for extractions.

The first time I assisted with an extraction and actually saw blood, I felt so woozy, I had to grip the arm of the dental chair for support. And when the dentist victoriously held up the disembodied tooth, I’m pretty sure my expression resembled the one I’d had the first time I watched the shower scene in the movie, “Psycho.”

“Suction!” the dentist ordered as I just stood there, the room spinning around me. “Suction!”

Even if the patient’s mouth had been stuffed with $100 bills, there was no way I was going to insert my bare hand (gloves weren’t worn back then) into his yucky, bloody mouth to suction it. Frustrated, the dentist finally grabbed the suction device out of my hand and did the suctioning himself.

When he took out the needle and suturing material so he could stitch up the hole where the tooth had been, that did it. I made a mad dash for the restroom.

To this day, I still feel terrible whenever I think of all the poor, innocent dental patients who suffered because of me.

“Spray the topical anesthesia on tooth number 14,” the dentist would call out to me as he darted between rooms. “Then I’ll pop in and administer the Novocain.”

I would dig out the chart that showed a picture of each tooth and its corresponding number and then I would go spray the patient’s tooth. The only problem was that I usually ended up spraying the wrong side because when I looked at the chart, my right was the patient’s left, and vice versa, and it always confused me.

So because of me, a lot of patients ended up feeling every jab of the Novocain injection. To this day, there probably still are voodoo dolls with my name on them, lying around former patients’ houses. Still, I figure that if the patients were too timid to speak up and tell me I was spraying the wrong tooth, then they were partly responsible for their own agony.

And the impressions that I poured to make molds for dentures always had so many air holes in them, the poor people probably ended up with false teeth that looked like topographical maps of the moon’s craters.

I say “probably” because I didn’t stick around long enough to find out.

Following the dental assistant’s job, which lasted barely three months, I landed such jobs as a grade-school teaching assistant, a contact lens technician, a switchboard operator at a satellite tracking station, a counselor at a weight-loss clinic, a wedding photographer and a newspaper correspondent.

I also became the manager of a local gift shop, even though I’d never managed much of anything beforehand. In fact, just “managing” to get out of bed and off to work on time every morning was a big challenge for me. And there I was, a woman who was so terrible at math, I couldn’t even balance my own checkbook, trying to keep track of the shop’s daily receipts. When I ran out of fingers to count on, I had to take off my shoes and stockings and use my toes.

When the gift shop went out of business (I swear the whole bankruptcy thing wasn’t my fault), I decided to take my time searching for another job because I wanted to be certain I’d find something exciting, challenging and stimulating. It took about five years, but I finally found a job that I felt suited me perfectly…I became a mystery shopper. In other words, I got paid to go shopping.

That’s about the only job I already knew how to do well…very well.

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