To those with a fear of dentists, an appointment with the drill can feel like a death sentence.


December 08, 1996|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN StAFF

John Stork looks like hell today. More specifically, he looks like someone who just had the tar beat out of him in some honky-tonk. It appears a few of the boys were swinging pool cues, too, because the left side of Stork's face is hideously swollen and his cheek is a huge knot and his eye is something you'd see on a fish after the hook is pulled out.

But Stork, 42, a route salesman for Ace Uniform Co., in Glen Burnie, didn't get this way by mouthing off at somebody's date. Actually, he's sitting here in the office of Barry Berman, an Owings Mills oral surgeon, pumped up with antibiotics and painkillers and nursing the mother of all abscessed teeth.

Right now John Stork is talking about fear, the cold, naked fear that grips him when he thinks of a dentist working in his mouth: the stainless-steel explorer jabbing cruelly at his gums, the needle that becomes the size of a javelin the longer he stares at it, the drill whining against his teeth like a body-shop sander against the bumper of an El Camino.

Clearly, despite the soft pastel walls that surround him and the giant tooth sign in the hallway proclaiming "Painless dentistry practiced here," Stork is living his worst nightmare.

"I let my teeth go and go and go because of the fear of coming to the dentist," he's saying now in a soft voice. "That's why I look like I do now. I procrastinate . . . because I know it's gonna hurt like hell."

Maybe you could call John Stork a sissy, but if that's the case, there are an awful lot of sissies out there.

The American Dental Association says that nearly half the people in this country fear dentistry to some degree. Thirty million of these are considered phobic, those with anxieties so crippling they avoid dental care completely.

Every one of these phobics has a story, too.

Here's John Stork's: It begins with vague memories of disturbing visits to the dentist as a small child, cavities the size of manhole covers to be filled, the needles with Novocaine plunging painfully into his gums and terrifying him, the Novocaine taking forever to work, sometimes not working at all.

What do you do when you're a little kid and someone's hurting you? You don't take it well. You kick. You scream. You cry.

By age 12 or so, John Stork can feel his phobia descending around him like a dark veil.

This is confirmed in a seminal moment not long after: It's a cold winter day. Johnny Stork is out sledding with his pals. He comes down a hill on his stomach, hits a ridge, bangs his face hard on the front of the sled.

The blow chips a front tooth -- badly. His mouth is bleeding, but one thought keeps running through his mind on a silent loop: I'm not going to the dentist. I am NOT going to the dentist!

And he doesn't go, either, despite his parents' urging.

Over time, the tooth gets worse and worse looking. It's your classic snaggle tooth. When he smiles, he looks like a guy who should be riding shotgun on a truckful of moonshine in the Ozarks.

Over the next 30 years, he neglects his teeth completely. He goes to the dentist only when the pain in a tooth becomes unbearable. Until finally he winds up in Barry Berman's office on a chilly Wednesday evening with this Elephant Man face and an abscessed tooth that's gone thermonuclear and become a genuine medical emergency.

"Oh, I was petrified!" he's saying now. "On the ride over here with my sister, I was like: 'Let's turn the car around and go home. I'll just suffer.' "

And here's what happens when they finally get John Stork into a dental chair:

Berman, a likable man with a soothing, irreverent manner, talks to him the way you'd talk to someone standing on the roof of a building threatening to jump. He gives Stork enough nitrous oxide to tranquilize a water buffalo. He gives him a shot of Zylocaine and Marcaine.

Finally, he makes a few incisions in Stork's gum. Then he proceeds to push down vigorously on the gum for the next 40 minutes or so to -- this is where you may want to put down that English muffin -- drain the pus out of the infected area.

The treatment, along with two types of antibiotics and painkillers, works. Within 24 hours, the crisis passes. They schedule an appointment for the following week so Berman can remove the abscessed tooth.

Maybe there are 30 million dental phobics out there, but it's people like John Stork who put an actual face on the phobia. At the moment, it's not a pretty face, either.

Here's the postscript to John Stork's story, and this isn't pretty, either: He misses his next appointment with Barry Berman, the one to have the abscessed tooth taken out. He misses three more appointments as well.

As of this writing, he hasn't been back.

The roots of fear

Who knows exactly what causes the white-hot, crippling fear that overwhelms so many dental phobics, a fear so deeply rooted and primeval that people will suffer for years without seeking help?

L According to the ADA, three of the biggest contributors are:

Vivid memories of painful experiences with the dentist, often in childhood.

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