When we moved to Wisconsin 16 years ago, we had to go through the same experience of everyone who has moved after a long period of time and when they are moving to a place where they have no connections or relatives. Simple things we often take for granted: finding a reliable car repair shop, locating a barber or other type of hair bender, finding a primary physician who works within a particular HMO, and locating a dentist.
None of it was easy. We were blessed right off the bat with the car repair shop and a primary physician we love. I’ve had more trouble finding a hair bender within a reasonable driving distance.
But the biggest challenge in this part of moving has been finding a dentist we like. We were so spoiled in South Dakota with our dentist who we had been with for 25 years. He was not far out of dental school when he located to our community. Terry had known him when he was in college. I met him for the first time when I reclined in his chair.
Breaking in new health professionals is not my idea of a good time, but this one was superb from the beginning. He knew what he was doing, he had a good sense of humor, and he was as careful as he could be with what could be an agonizing get-together. He provided my first crown when I cracked a tooth on a piece of pecan shell hiding in German chocolate cake frosting (wouldn’t you know it would be my favorite cake). That was years ago and I still have that crown and it has felt like the original tooth.
When we moved, we had to leave him behind and begin our search. We deliberately carry only the minimal dental insurance for preventative care like exams, cleanings, and cavities. Anything beyond that comes out of our pockets. We’ve been blessed with relatively healthy teeth so it has been a wise decision to save that insurance money.
We hunted around for a dentist nearby and felt that we had come up with a good one. When it came time for another crown, however, I was dismayed at the onerous process and the seemingly clumsy way he went about it. He was all thumbs. I got the crown, but it still feels like a big square block in my mouth. Plus, this guy had a short temper. Terry had a bad experience with him too. So we moved on.
We like the dentist we have now. He is very kind and the hygienist with whom I spend the bulk of my time is very nice and thorough.
At least three years ago, both the dentist and the hygienist put one of my teeth on a “watch list” for a crown. They said the X-rays showed it would need a crown. We inquired how much a crown would be. $1,750. Now that’s not highway robbery in this neck of the woods. That’s the going rate for a crown no matter what dentist attends.
But in one of our conversations with our favorite dentist from back in South Dakota, I asked him how much he charges. $750. I said, “Don’t give me a financial break on this” (as was a likely thing for him to do). He said, “I’m not. That’s what everyone pays. $750.”
We were aghast at the price difference.
Now, remember. This isn’t Mexico dentistry and it isn’t some fly-by-night dentist. This guy is highly respected in the dental field. Don’t write him off because he happens to love living in South Dakota.
So after three years on my most recent dentist’s “watch list” for a crown, I was upfront with him. “This is no reflection on you, Doctor,” I said, “but I can get this done for $750 and get a vacation back to South Dakota for what you charge. I know this is the going rate and that’s fine, but I’m going to get this crown in South Dakota.”
His response was, “I understand. Money talks.” That metaphor didn’t quite fit the circumstances, but he seemed to understand that without insurance to cover a big bill that I might want to go back “home.”
So we loaded up for a South Dakota vacation. The crown from start to finish would take one hour and 15 minutes. After that was done we were heading on to the Black Hills for a few days and as guests of our dentist friend and his wife in their Black Hills home. A vacation on a shoestring. Dental work for less than half of what it would cost here.
It felt good being back in my friend’s dental chair. Much of his staff had changed, but they were still friendly and welcoming. I reclined and relaxed right away as I answered the assistant’s questions and suffered the gagging sensation of the X-ray. Then my old friend the dentist came in and greeted me warmly and as if I had never left.
Now, it wouldn’t be unusual for the assistant to relay to him her findings in her initial examination of me and the results of the X-ray, but as I lay there, I felt there was an unusual tone to their conversation. Then the dentist, having examined the X-ray, asked me many of the same questions I had already answered. I was getting curious.
He asked me again which tooth we were talking about. I was specific about getting that information before we left Wisconsin so I could give him the tooth number. He looked at the X-ray again. He looked at my tooth again.
Then he stepped back, looked me square in the eye and said, “Gretchen. There’s nothing wrong with that tooth. I won’t put a crown on a perfectly healthy tooth.”
I was flabbergasted. “What should I do?” I stammered.
“Get a new dentist?” he said.
I was kind of in a state of shock as he took Terry and me back into his office to go through the hows and whys of getting settled into his Black Hills home. My mind was swimming with what had just happened. When we walked out and got into the car, I just burst into tears.
Terry, of course, didn’t know for certain what I was crying about. I wasn’t sure what I was crying about. It wasn’t relief over the fact that I didn’t have to get the dental work. It was the affirmation of what I have known since we moved to a place where we had no relatives or friends built in to our lives. “I just got final confirmation that we have no one there who cares about us,” I cried with a sweeping generalization.
But there was a truth to that. In a smaller community, people get the word around when professionals of any stripe operate under questionable means. They don’t last long. But to be on a “watch list” for over three years for a tooth that is perfectly healthy – what does that mean? And a “watch list” corroborated by the hygienist? How often are teeth fixed for no reason? And to what extent does the prevalence of health and dental insurance affect those medical decisions? The price is the same whether I have insurance or not.
Well, I quickly got over my tears and we moved on for visits with friends and a wonderful vacation in the Black Hills.
But there has been damage done. Not by the dentist in South Dakota. The damage that has been done is the loss of trust and the sense of aloneness I feel in a place I have called home for 16 years. I don’t know who to trust. I’m not looking for sympathy. I have met some wonderful people in Wisconsin.
We’ll have to decide if we make that 10-hour drive each way every six months just to get our checkups and cleanings in the future. I’d almost rather do that and get immediate additional out-of-pocket work done then than to rely on an in-grown system of care that would take advantage of my trust and innocence.
Meanwhile, Friends, I would highly recommend South Dakota for your next dental destination vacation. I can recommend an excellent dentist and you can probably throw in a visit to Mt. Rushmore to boot.
15 You shall have only a full and honest weight; you shall have only a full and honest measure, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 16 For all who do such things, all who act dishonestly, are abhorrent to the Lord your God. – Deuteronomy 25:15-16
24 Some friends play at friendship
but a true friend sticks closer than one’s nearest kin. – Proverbs 18:24