Saturday, June 11, 2005

Broken tooth ponders

A couple weeks ago, while driving to work and chewing on a breakfast burrito, I felt something hard and odd-shaped moving around in my mouth. Strange feeling; I thought it was a piece of bone (which definitely didn't belong in my breakfast burrito!). So I spit it out, and by gosh it was about half of the top part of a molar. And sure enough, there was a vacant spot in my mouth, lower left hand side. Somehow, on something as soft as a breakfast burrito, I'd managed to break a tooth apart!

Fortunately for me, this was a pain-free broken tooth. Not like the fall-on-the-floor-writhing-and-screaming kind of broken tooth that I'd witnessed in others. So when I got to work, I called and made an appointment with my dentist, Dr. Tom Brassington ("Dr. B") of La Mesa, California.

This past Thursday, I went in to see him. He went to work on my mouth, full of good cheer and friendly conversation as always. I've known Dr. B for close to 30 years. We met in (I think) 1979, when I owned a business manufacturing business computers, Z-80 CP/M based machines with minimal software, but a nice oak or walnut cabinet (which we also made). Dr. B was one of the first customers we had, buying a computer for his business. I'm not entirely sure he knew what he was getting into, but he was positive he wanted one!

An hour or so later, I was on my way with a very numb face and tongue, and a brand-spanking-new temporary crown. I'll get the real thing in a few weeks, some kind of fancy porcelain-on-gold high-tech thingy.

But I couldn't help thinking about Dr. B some more. His work contrasts in many ways with mine. The most immediate difference, to me, is the simple fact that he's been doing basically the same work ever since I first knew him. I don't know how long he'd been a practicing dentist when I first met him, but I think it's safe to say he's been in practice at least 30 years. Compare that with my "career" — I haven't done the same thing for more than a few years at a stretch, ever. Then another difference: every single day, the work that Dr. B does helps people in a very direct and tangible way. My work (in software engineering, at the moment) can be positioned as helping people, in some kind of general, vague, and abstract fashion — but that help has nothing like the direct, personal nature of Dr. B's help. Then I had the chance on this visit to watch Dr. B handle a situation gone awry (of course this would happen to me!). Apparently my gum was bleeding and would not stop. In very rapid sequence, Dr. B did several things to attempt to staunch the flow. I'm not at all sure I can remember all of them, but there was an injection of some vasoconstricter (I know only because I asked him), some kind of electrical device (that was painful, even through the numbing), and some kind of ferrous chemical (that tasted extremely bad). Eventually the bleeding was stopped. What struck me, however, was the calm, competent, and practiced manner that Dr. B had throughout the whole affair. He was moving quickly, was obviously concerned, but knew exactly where everything was (and it was right at hand), knew what sequence to try them in, and just generally seemed to be in control. Some of this, I suspect, is because Dr. B really is a wonderful general practitioner dentist — and some, I suspect, is because he's been doing this for 30 years. I'm sure I'm not the first "bleeder" he's had to deal with. Contrast that with my work, where it's very common for me to run into something for the first time ever, and to bumble about trying to find the answer. Now it happens that I enjoy the troubleshooting and debugging; it's like solving a puzzle. And I do believe I have an above-average skill level in this area — but rarely do I ever have the opportunity to show the kind of all-encompassing competence that Dr. B does day in and day out.

I hope Dr. B finds his career as rewarding for him as it is for his patients...

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