The Endodontist

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Commentator and psychiatrist Elissa Ely is on the receiving end of root canal and suspects there may be medical specialties more difficult than her own. Her endodontist's nurse isn't so sure.


As a psychiatrist commentator Elissa Ely is accustomed to dispensing care. When she needed medical attention, though, she was determined to prove that doctors do not make the worst patients.


The situation involved a root canal and a psychiatrist, which sounds like the start of a-bear-walks-into-a-bar story but was less entertaining. The problem was pain. It always is. I explained this to the endodontist. We had never met before but he had heard the same words from a hundred mouths. `The number two molar can be vicious,' he said. `Open up, please. I will gently probe.'

On the face of it, his is a friendless profession. By midlife one arrives at each new dentist with a set of mortal choppers and an emotional history. I was thinking this as he gently probed. How long can one be dreaded by others before beginning to despair?

The number two began to hurt. I asked if the root canal was also going to hurt. The endodontist did not rush to useless reassurances. Instead he said, `I do this all day long, day after day. This is all I do.' The answer had a profound effect. It was the comfort of quantity. Here was a man who did root canals all day, hundreds, maybe thousands. He was not going to hold my hand. He was going to fix my tooth. Still, I dreaded him. I remembered that I am not brave and that I fear dental work so much I usually prefer the problem to its treatment. There was smoke and noise near my ear. It smelled and sounded bad. But there was no pain, not one twinge in any part of the number two.

`Does it hurt?' said his assistant.

`No,' I said.

`That's the point,' she said. It was another revelation.

Time passed. The endodontist worked without talking. My thoughts grew relaxed. I only hoped I was this useful to patients who came to me. Then it was done and my faith had been redeemed. While the endodontist scribbled something on a billing form, his assistant slipped a packet of Advil tabs into my bag. She considered, then added two more packets.

`This is for pain relief,' she said. She shook her head. `In your line of work you need it. I just don't know how you do what you do.'

BLOCK: Elissa Ely is a Boston psychiatrist.

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