Faith in Vermont: Journeys in Pediatric Dentistry

Like most people, I do not love change. This is particularly true if the change in question involves putting up buildings where there were none. I realize the need for economic development: More buildings generally mean more jobs, and that more jobs are good for the overall welfare of our community. Still, I’d rather have grass and trees than bricks and mortar. If a building must occupy land, I’d rather have a charming, crumbling farmhouse than a new construction.

I’m weird that way.

But when we returned to Vermont after five months away and I noticed a brand-new construction on a formerly vacant lot on Route 7 with a sign out front proclaiming it the future home of Middlebury Pediatric Dentistry, I thought, “It’s about time!”

Pediatric dentistry is the subject of a surprisingly high proportion of the conversations I have with other parents.  That we spend so much time comparing notes on our children’s dental care is not because the youth of Addison County have worse teeth than youth elsewhere; mouth for mouth, I expect we have about the same number of childhood cavities as most counties in the United States.

No; our fascination with pediatric dentistry is a product of scarce resources, in much the same way that citizens in a famine-stricken country spend a disproportionate amount of time considering the best sources of black-market food, or the Dutch obsessed over how to acquire tulip bulbs during the Tulip Mania of 1637.

Up until now, Addison County has had no pediatric dentistry practice.

It’s not that the dentists here won’t treat children; they will, and they do. As far as I know, there are two local dental practices that treat children for regular dental checkups and cleanings.  All six members of our family visit a dentist in our town. My children look forward to seeing the dentist almost as much as they look forward to Christmas, because after their teeth are cleaned they score a new toothbrush, some dinosaur-shaped flossers, a sticker, and a cheap plastic “treasure” from the treasure chest in the waiting room. It’s a much better haul than they get from a doctor’s visit.

The problem arises when there’s a problem.

Thankfully, my children have remarkably healthy teeth. Between four daughters, we’ve only had a single cavity. This is either a miracle or genetic luck. Here’s the truth: Once those dinosaur flossers from their checkups run out, I rarely remind my children to floss, and when the hygienist asks whether I help them brush, I mumble something unintelligible – not because they wouldn’tlet me help, but because I seldom ask.

It was that single cavity that catapulted me into the ranks of local parents bemoaning our town’s lack of a pediatric dentist.

The daughter with the cavity is awful when it comes to medical attention of any kind. This is the daughter who is so ticklish that it’s nearly impossible for a doctor to listen to her heart, the daughter who asks whether she’s going to need a shot approximately 57 times before any appointment, the daughter whom I had to chase around the hallways of Rainbow Pediatrics – a chase that ended with her locking herself in the bathroom – when we took her in for a flu vaccine. And mind you: She was getting the flu vaccine nasal spray, no needles involved.

So when the dentist discovered a small cavity in this child’s tooth, I knew we were in for it.

Because this cavity was in the molar of a 6-year-old and wouldn’t fall out for another six years or so, the dentist recommended we fill it before it grew and caused problems. Our local dentist was willing to try and fill the cavity right here in town. But you know the first step towards filling a cavity? The one that involves inserting a  needle into your gum in order to numb your mouth? That step didn’t go over well with my girl.

“I don’t want to traumatize her,” the dentist said, shaking his head as my daughter did her best impression of a horror film heroine in his chair. “We’ll send you up to Timberlane.”

Timberlane Dental Group is the local behemoth of tooth care, with 18 dentists spread between locations in Burlington, South Burlington, Essex Junction, and Shelburne. In addition to pediatric dentistry, Timberlane also offers general dentistry, orthodontics, and periodontic treatment.

My daughter’s appointment was at Timberlane’s South Burlington location, which is roughly an hour’s drive from our house. I scheduled it on a school holiday, blocked out the morning, arranged childcare for our other three daugthers, and off we went.

When we entered the Timberlane offices, I was sure all of our problems were solved. The waiting room was spacious and well-stocked with books, magazines, and toys. There were multiple receptionists working the desk. The smiling young hygienist who walked us back to the exam rooms had a wonderful way with my daughter. There were stuffed monkeys hanging from the lights above the exam chairs.

I’d already prepped my daughter for what would happen: She was going to breathe in a gas which would make her feel silly, and they’d give her something to numb her mouth while the dentist filled her cavity.

“We’re here to have a cavity filled,” I informed the hygienist.

“Okay,” she smiled. “So, this is just your initial visit. We don’t want to traumatize her; we want to her get comfortable with our practice. Today we’ll look at her tooth and make a plan, and then we’ll schedule your appointment to get that cavity filled.”

I’d just blocked out a morning, arranged childcare, and driven an hour for a meet and greet???

My daughter was thrilled. The dentist was as young, smiling, and good with children as the hygienist. My irritation at having not been informed from the get-go that this would actually involve two appointments was mitigated by my confidence that these were clearly the people to handle my daughter’s cavity.

Three months later, during summer vacation, I again left my other three children and drove my daughter the hour north to Timberlane for the moment of truth.

Everything went smoothly, until the moment the hygienist was about to put the gas mask over my daughter’s head. Then: the shrieking, the fighting, the clinging to me for protection.

The hygienist left the room so that I could get my daughter under control. I tried everything: I reassured, I comforted, I bribed, I pleaded. I may have resorted to hissing, “Look, I will have spent four hours of my life driving you to these appointments, so let’s just get this done!”

Nothing worked. When the hygienist re-entered with the dentist in tow, my daughter panicked anew.

The dentist looked at her and said to me, “We can’t do it today. I don’t want to traumatize her.”

By this point, I was sick and tired of everyone else’s concern over traumatizing my child. I wanted to say, “She’s already traumatized, so what’s a little more trauma in the name of dental health? Please, go ahead and traumatize her! I will sign the release! I will handle any future therapy!”

But instead, with a trembling voice, I asked, “So, what do we do, then?”

“Well,” he said, “since that tooth is going to fall out anyway, we can just put a sealant on it to protect it and keep the cavity from getting any bigger for the next few years.”

I tried not to think about how we could’ve had a sealant put on that molar at our local dentist’s office, ten minutes from our house. The tooth was sealed without incident, and we drove the hour home.

Since then, I’ve had numerous conversations with local parents who’ve experienced the same the long drives, multiple appointments, and children having to wait months for care  -- sometimes with severe dental issues.

This is not Timberlane’s fault; they’re burdened with all the Champlain Valley’s pediatric dentistry needs. And my daughter will be a mess in the dentist’s chair whether we’ve driven an hour or ten minutes. But now, she can panic closer to home.

I suppose this is my way of saying: Welcome, Middlebury Pediatric Dentistry! It’s about time!


Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone labradoodle — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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Addison County Independent

58 Maple Street
Middlebury, VT 05753

Phone: 802.388.4944
Fax: 802.388.3100