Imagine a world where you get paid to go to the dentist. In this fantasy, a fully-trained hygienist hands you cash if you let her work on your teeth. And all those rules about brushing and flossing? Flush them.
“Here, suck on this lollipop for an hour at bedtime,” the hygienist says, “and don’t brush your teeth tonight. Heck, here’s a whole bag of lollipops. Suck on one before bed, three nights every week, for three months. The other days, gargle with a bottle of milk of magnesia at bedtime.”
“Why?” you ask the hygienist.
“I need calcium buildup on your teeth. Under no circumstances should you brush your teeth at bedtime.”
What if I told you, this could be real if you know the right people?
I don’t know what comes up in conversation at your dentist visit, but I always learn something new. I’ll call my hygienist Candy to protect her identity. Yesterday, I asked Candy what kind of test she had to take before she could work in a dentist’s office.
“I had to pass the written board test to get certified,” Candy relied. “And then there’s the practical test.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“The hygienist-in-training brings a volunteer to be her human guinea pig. She works in the volunteer’s mouth to prove her skills to the examiner.”
“Wait,” I said. “You have to get rid of tartar and stains and all that bad stuff, right? Could you use my mouth, hypothetically speaking?”
“Oh, no,” Candy said. “Your teeth wouldn’t do, Wendy. They’re too healthy. No calcifications or tartar or decay. Your mouth is boring.”
Did everyone hear that? My teeth are in such good shape, no hygienist-in-training would want me for her board test. She needs a mouth that has been neglected. For at least three months.
“How do you find such a mouth?” I asked.
“Trust me, neglected teeth are not hard to find. But I did have a problem the day I took my boards. My friend and I took the test together, and we both brought a guinea pig person to work on, and the test administrator rejected both our guinea pigs. He looked in their mouths and said their teeth looked too good. Then the instructor went to lunch. We switched patients. When the instructor came back and looked at our guinea pigs, he said, ‘They’ll do,’ and we took our tests.”
“He didn’t notice you had switched? Did the instructor drink several beers at lunch?”
“I guess so.”
“So let’s say a hygienist needs to take her boards,” I said. “Her roommate is her guinea pig. She tells her, ‘I need you to practice poor dental hygiene for three months.’ Ewww, what kind of bad breath would that produce?”
“Pretty bad, but she gets paid. I paid my guinea pig $200, and that was thirty years ago.”
“Wait. If we adjust for inflation, today the guinea pig gets paid, say, $300 to ignore her teeth for three months?”
“At least $300.”
“What if you catch your guinea pig flossing?”
“I’d rip the floss out of her hands. No floss. My career is on the line.”
“Doesn’t this go against some dental Hippocratic oath? Y’know, when you promise to do no harm?” I asked.
“Whatever. If you’re a hygienist, you don’t care.” Candy patted my arm. “Don’t worry, I’ll take good care of your teeth. But if your guinea pig’s teeth are too healthy on the day of the test, you have two choices. Wait six months for the next round of testing –”
“–which means you don’t get certified and you can’t get a job –”
“Right, or go out on the sidewalk and recruit a random stranger with bad dental habits to be your guinea pig,” she said.
“So,” I said, “you go up to a stranger and say, ‘Excuse me, ma’am, would you like a cool $300? Do you practice bad dental home care? I need your teeth.’”
“Yes, you find someone on the street. Or in the neighborhood Starbucks.”
I stopped asking questions because Candy still had a little work to do, examining my perfect teeth. I lay there with my mouth open, stunned. The dental world sure has a nasty moral underbelly. Ten minutes later, the dentist approached my exam chair. She’s one of my favorite health care practitioners because she answers my random questions about dentistry.
I wanted to report what I had just learned. “Candy tells me hygienists feed their roommates lollipops for three months to promote tooth decay,” I explained.
The dentist nodded. “Oh, yeah, you do whatever you have to,” she agreed. “You might be surprised at what goes on in dental school. Did I tell you about the time my fellow dental students stole nitrous from the lab?”
“Oh, I had that once,” I said. “That’s good stuff, very relaxing. Wait, you stole laughing gas?”
“No, of course I didn’t steal it. But I heard somebody did.”
“Dental students are stealing laughing gas,” I said. “Hygienists make their friends eat candy at bedtime. Do you people have no moral compass?”
“They give us the compass when we graduate from dental school,” she explained. “Okay, let’s see those pearly whites.”
“Before you work on my teeth, do you promise to do no harm like the Hippocratic oath says?”
“I promise to do no harm,” the dentist said, raising her right hand. She donned her magnifying glasses.
“Do I get a lollipop when I leave your office today?”
“No,” she said. “Now open wide.”
She had all the sharp instruments, so I did as I was told.