The Price of a Million-Dollar Smile

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Much to her own chagrin, Sheila Nevins will stop at nothing to preserve her teeth

I have spent more on my teeth (most of us have 32) than on any of my weddings, expensive spa vacations, or my kid’s entire education. This toothy madness began in preadolescence, when I wore braces for some three years for a slight overbite (très shih tzu), which I owed to prolonged thumb sucking. This frontal bucking created a mouth made for remolding. My mother had wanted a perfect child and so I was rushed to an NYU dental clinic where trembling dental wannabes completed their education in my less-than-perfect mouth.

Actually, I was all for this renovation because Stanley (heartthrob) Brettschneider wouldn’t kiss me in the closet during my first hot game of spin the bottle. (I was almost twelve). In this earliest of traumas, Stanley told me, quite frankly, that he didn’t kiss girls with braces. It was too dangerous. I was devastated and waited impatiently for the corrected-perfected me. Yet, alas, when the metal and rubber were removed, Stanley had moved to the burbs, and we never did kiss, never ever. But that was years ago and my poor-girl braces kept my smile going for some 30 years — maintaining at bargain prices a rich girl’s smile, in a poor girl’s clinically improved mouth.

But things do happen, and one day in my 40th-something year — a sharp, man-eating pain pierced my left canine. Yelping wolflike, I called my family dentist (now a very old man — sweet Dr. Sweder) and began a winding dental path of new discovery. I was met on a bloody Sunday in April by a drill sergeant named Dr. Bain. He was known as an endodontist – a new word had entered my vocabulary. I was an endodontal emergency and after some 10,000 X-rays, Dr. Bain introduced me to the root-canal experience – a journey I would grow accustomed to. With a rubber towelette, and wee guillotine equipment, a sadist’s drill and a twisting motion, he would remove an infected nerve from my tooth, which was attached to my gum, which was attached to my mouth, which was attached to me. What had led him to do this gyrating turn of the screw? Possibly it was better not to know.

Dr. Bain played opera and whistled while he worked. Each time he pierced and pulled, he asked me if I liked a particular opera and I always grunted – ah, huh, eh, huh – for words were impossible during root-canal incarceration and it seemed foolhardy anyway to disagree with someone who practiced mouth S&M. Anyway, I am not an opera fan. I believe it was he, Dr. Bain, who started me on the dental smile train. I was on an express with no local stops. For even my four-year-old son was referred by him to a pedodontist – a bit scary at first, I was assured he was not a felon, but a trained specialist in baby teeth. Phew. And then through this Dr. Bain – of my existence, this endodontist – I became acquainted with the prosthodontist who introduced me to the periodontist, who introduced me to the oral surgeon.

You see, no one dentist would tend to a whole tooth. The tooth was fragmented. The profession of saving teeth had become, since Grandma’s time, a fine art. Nowhere was there to be found a plain, simple, do-it-all dentist anywhere, anyplace. Nary a month went by when I didn’t pay a visit to be bled, capped or implanted by some relative of the dental family tree. I was working for professional men, the bills were fast and furious, the coverage limited, but oh what a smile I was earning. Rather they were earning. I would show my porcelains off like a college girl with an expensive engagement ring. Showtime.

Yet in retrospect you have to feel sorry for these guys. I think I have discovered the secret to their closely knit society of dentists. When visiting the gynecologist or, even, the proctologist, with legs in the stirrups, or arse up, you can still engage in dialogue about the world or tell a story, or at least respond to questions like “Do you like La Traviata?” Not so in a dental chair. Tilted, swathed, poked with sharp tools, drilled at, water spouting in your eye – all you can do is make guttural sounds like ugh, ah, err, uhm, eh.

Grandma put her teeth in a jar. She too had a beautiful smile, though artificial, and not firmly planted. And, though, Grandma’s teeth may have been occasionally heard by a loose click that would disturb a family conversation – this was a rare occasion and would only occur when there was a seismic shift of plates. It was quickly Fix-o-Dented by her.

But Grandma had one dentist: our family dentist, dear Dr. William B. Sweder. He knew us. He was my very first. He used to calm me. We all liked to see him. He filled my first tooth to be filled. He said it wouldn’t hurt, and it didn’t. Flouridated me. He told me about the Tooth Fairy (she worked on my behalf). He gave me free toothpaste and a brush with a clown’s head. And Dr. Sweder did it all – from baby teeth on, from day one to dentures – the beginning to the end. And I bet he wasn’t lonely, I bet. He knew us all. But he’s long gone like a dial phone to an iPhone. I think I miss him but, unlike Grandma, I do keep my teeth in at night – for a price. And without question I do have a million-dollar smile. And I’m not speaking metaphor.

5 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    The Center for Dental Excellence — well, doesn’t the name have a classy ring about it?  How do I explain to you that I wouldn’t mind living there.  .  . and on and off – well, I almost do.  Only a few miles from home, the to-kill-for building is set far back off the street with a forest next door with parking hidden among brick patios in the rear.  Its name just doesn’t do it justice for you go in looking like your teeth have been around a few too many years (a bit like your face!)  And then ——

    Close-up photos of your smiling face are taken and shown to you.  You couldn’t have been out on the street all these years with your teeth looking like THAT?!!  OMG, it is all you can do to not cry before you get to the parking lot.  .   . and would if you weren’t in shock over the cost of becoming gorgeous.  But magically – in what is called “the consultation room” – so glamourous in itself that you don’t want to leave – Dr. Cary Goldberg produces photos of what you will look like when he is done with the “transformation”. 

    The price – as it was said – of the “million dollar smile” were weighed against a couple of wonderful yearly vacations that would go down the drain.  . and we wavered.  My husband raised his hand to be the guinea pig first.  .  . and the perfect white teeth that resulted have left him smiling, more handsome — but now he looked about 15 years younger than me.  (Did I say that whatever they do, you no longer have those icky wrinkly lines over your lip like “some of us” did?  Gone.  Somehow they have built your teeth out a bit.)

    My turn.  What could I do?  I now looked like my husband’s mother!!  Did I tell anyone what I was doing?  Are you kidding?  Not a person has said:  did you have your teeth re-done?  But everyone comes up and says that I look so good and young — and I notice  they keep looking. . and when was the last time you were my age and people are not just asking about your health, for gosh sake, making you feel you had one foot in the grave?? 

    Before you say “no way” to your mouth looking sensational, I will say that I will never have to see dental specialists, have teeth pulled (and none of mine were pulled) and I had not one bit of pain.  I am transformed for LIFE.   I always have smiled – a happy person — but, though I was a skeptic, magical things have happened to my work life, my home life, and it is a lot more fun to look in the mirror.  I am dazzling!

    The price of the million dollar smile has been priceless to my life and my world.  .   . and two years ago, I would not have believed I would be saying that – EVER!  Joan

  2. avatar Maggie W says:

    From the time I was a small child, I have been in a dentist’s chair.  It’s been like a second home.  When I was in my early 20’s, a wisdom tooth became infected.  They all came out and when they did, they shattered like glass.  I was in that chair for three hours.  I have a mouth full of crowns, and one bridge as a result of having broken a tooth in half on a popcorn kernal. ( I discovered that is not  uncommon.)  I also know the root canal scenario well.  Because my front teeth were becoming weak, I also have lovely veneers.  It’s always been one thing or another.  A dentist finally summed it up nicely, ” The problem is really that you have teeth too large for such a small mouth”.  So, he made the crowns a tad smaller. 

    At that point , a small oil well would have helped with the ongoing dental financial drain.  Fortunately,  the miracle of dental insurance arrived and that helped ease the monetary burden immensely.

    I, too,have that million dollar smile, but it had nothing to do with vanity.  As a professor, I often saw lovely young people.  Gorgeous skin, curly hair, twinkling eyes…. and horrid teeth.  One student would look down when she conversed with someone.   I hope that at some point she got  the dental care she needed.  Lack of dental care is embarrassing but also can have severe health repercussions. 
    My husband, always the thinker, said one day, ” Imagine if we had been born two hundred years ago.  I would be legally blind and you would be toothless.”   Now that’s a rosy picture!

  3. avatar Linda Myers says:

    I still remember opting to have four root canals done at once on my front teeth after hitting the windshield in a car accident. Not sure you ever forget those times. Saved the teeth though.

  4. avatar Grace OMalley says:

    I say if you’re going to write an article like that, then you need to change your banner pictie so we can see those big Jimmy Carter toofies!

  5. avatar Erika Muller says:

    I was a very bright, rather precocious little girl. My first dentist was named Dr. Mangle. This did not bode well for my future encounters with the dental profession.