Kenneth Myers, DDS
As I walked into the room, the nurse was applying medication to a hand wound my grandmother had received from a fall a week earlier. My eight-year-old son, Tim, and I had traveled a thousand miles to say goodbye to my grandmother.
At 89 years of age, her body finally was ready to give in to breast cancer and her mind had fallen victim to Alzheimer`s disease over the previous several years. I knew she hardly would know who I was, and if she did remember, the memory would be gone moments after I left. However, my father was an only child and it was important to help him through these difficult times. I also felt like my son needed to learn about his roots.
It was sad to see her unable to hold herself up in a chair. She seemed so frail and weak. I said "hello" to her, but she only could open her eyes enough to gaze at me. Her air-filled voice repeated, "I`m so tired; I`m so tired."
I held her hand and comforted her the best I knew how. I showed Tim to her and she struggled out a sincere smile toward him. I told her stories about my family, my job, and the tree we planted in honor of my grandfather. I told her how full and complete our lives were. It was as if I was trying to justify her life through the one I was able to live now.
We had brought some cinnamon cookies with us and I offered one to her. Her dry, frail hand reached for the cookie and she slowly began to nibble on it. As you spend time with someone who is so close to death and appears to have lost everything, human nature leads you to think about how unimportant so much of your life truly can be.
That`s how my mind went then, thinking of the worldly parts of my life. I thought of the cars, the boat, my home, the ability to travel, cry, run, walk - the things we can have and do when we are healthy. And, being a dentist, the worry I have had in my life caring about something as silly as teeth seemed pretty mundane at that particular moment.
As I pondered these thoughts, the first cookie disappeared, then another, and so on. It became very apparent that my grandmother`s exhausted manner seemed to temporarily dissipate. She had found some pleasure in the nibbling of those cinnamon cookies.
With her eyes closed and her body relaxed as she ate, my attention focused on a collage of colorful photographs that hung next to her bed in this cold, stark room. Looking down at me was a picture of my grandfather, almost as if he approved that I had chosen to come. My grandfather was a righteous man, who always felt it was important to do things the correct way. His home was not large, but it was perfect. Every part of it was neat, crisp, and clean. The saying, "everything has a place and every place has a thing," described how well he took care of his belongings.
In the same manner, my grandfather placed a great priority on his own health and the health of my grandmother. An important part of their overall health was their teeth. They both had most, if not all, of their teeth. Even at the time of my grandfather`s death at the age of 84, he was scheduled to have some major dental work completed. As a matter of fact, you could say that my grandfather was comprehensive with his health and life.
As my grandmother was working on her fifth cookie, I found that my total focus was on her ability to gently grasp the cookie, take it to her mouth, bite it, and sigh with pleasure as she slowly chewed the wonderful taste that she was experiencing. Suddenly, I realized that because she had her own teeth at the age of 89, she was able to find some pleasure in what most would consider a horrible existence. The only thing that she had left was the ability to eat and to experience the pleasure of taste!
The comprehensive nature of my father and grandfather had filtered into my own life as a dentist. What moments before had seemed silly now had renewed importance to me. Many patients will immediately judge the ability of a dentist on his or her personality or whether the dental treatment is "pain-free." However, a dentist`s true competence will be measured if his or her patients still have the ability to eat when they are on death`s doorstep.
This only can be accomplished with a comprehensive, long-term approach to dentistry and helping people understand the importance of this type of care. No matter what you do in this world - whether you are a banker, builder, mother, or physician - you need to treat people with this personalized, comprehensive approach.
Remember, the person it matters to the most is not always going to be yourself. Now, because of the effort we put forth together, I look at all of my patients knowing that when they have lost everything else in life, including their mind and most bodily functions, they may still be able to enjoy the ability to eat and the pleasure we all love - our fifth sense, taste.
As my grandmother`s hand slowly reached out, her fragile voice whispered to me, "Can I please have another cookie?"
Dr. Kenneth Myers maintains a restorative practice in Falmouth, Maine. He has lectured locally in practice philosophy and is an alumnus of the Pankey Institute. Dr. Myers can be contacted at (207) 797-3130.