When Dentists Are More Magical Than the Tooth Fairy

Sherry Toh avatar

by Sherry Toh |

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time of trouble | SMA News Today | Disability Pride Month | main graphic for column titled "Wandering the Lines," by Sherry Toh

At every briefing before their shift, the nurses at my local children’s hospital would glance at me with amusement. As a child, I was often in the hospital for respiratory issues, and I had acquired a reputation. Not for my SMA, mind you, but for the one request I rarely wavered on.

“Don’t put the suction tube near Sherry’s throat if she’s phlegmy. Just give it to her,” the briefing nurse would tell her colleagues. “She’ll hold it in her mouth and cough. Her mummy has also insisted we don’t suck the phlegm up through her nose.”

The nurses would smile in acknowledgement, as if to say, “We know.”

This is how hospitalizations and medical appointments have gone my entire life. I’d stubbornly refuse to do what medical professionals expected of me, and my parents would aid and abet that stubbornness — likely because I inherited my aversion to hospitals and clinics from them. If I was uncomfortable with nurses and physiotherapists sticking a tube into my mouth that triggered a gag reflex, no problem, Mum and Dad would establish my boundaries for me. We knew my body and states of mind best, thank you.

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From Hospital Stays to Grateful Days

This approach to healthcare is fine and dandy most of the time. I’m used to being poked and prodded. But that doesn’t mean I like it, or that it’s beneficial. On the contrary, I’m filled with dread whenever another speech therapist visits, or a dietitian examines my calorie intake, or antibiotics that upset my stomach are prescribed, or another drug is ordered for me to try, or a follow-up appointment where we do nothing but look at me is scheduled, and so on.

However, there are occasions when my stubbornness fails me.

Exhibit A: my cavities and missing teeth.

My fear of medical tools being shoved into my mouth turned into a fear of dentists as I grew older. It didn’t help that my parents and friends had told me horror stories about tooth loss and jaw dislocations. So, for 22 years and 9 months, I never consulted a dentist. My mum would try coaxing me into visiting one after she lost a wisdom tooth, but like every time I tried coaxing her to go to her follow-up appointments, the answer was no. Why did I have to see a dentist if I felt fine?

Then, the toothaches came.

Had a molar not decayed and two of my front teeth not chipped, I would’ve continued to live in ignorant bliss. But my teeth are, in short, a mess.

My mum quickly scheduled a dentist appointment. Two days later, I met our family dentist, and my fears were banished. I didn’t have to be afraid at all. She was gentle and aware of the challenges SMA presented. She consoled me to put me at ease as she poked around my mouth. Unfortunately, she was hesitant to fix my teeth without X-rays and the necessary equipment for someone with a neuromuscular disability. We had to consult with a dentist at the hospital staffed with my SMA team — but not before she washed my teeth. A suction tube for the excess water was kindly placed at the side of my mouth.

The appointment with the hospital’s dentist, who specialized in caring for disabled patients, was another two days later. He was as kind and gentle as my family’s dentist, and reminded me that it wasn’t my fault if I needed accommodations or faced certain difficulties, such as when taking X-rays. I knew nothing was my fault, but I appreciated the reminder just the same.

That was the moment I realized how privileged I am to be able to receive treatment in Singapore. Care for SMA patients here still leaves a lot to be desired, but it’s gotten better over the years, and the occasional circumstance reminds me what healthcare should be like: accessible, affordable, and compassionate.

While the hospital’s dentist talked to my mum and me about the risks and costs of a surgery to remove the decayed molar, I remembered Shane Burcaw, an SMA advocate in the U.S.

Like me, Shane needed a tooth removed from the back of his mouth. But he and his wife, Hannah, had to search for dentists that could fit his wheelchair and perform the procedure. I didn’t. I rolled right into the clinics of both dentists I consulted. I was treated with respect and trust. And I had financial aid.

I’m not saying I’ll eagerly visit healthcare practitioners and enjoy taking their recommendations anytime soon. But if all my medical experiences could be as humanizing, maybe I’d be a little less stubborn.


Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today, or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.

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