Fillings or Jail

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I let the phone ring a second time to give the caller ID time to display. "It’s the dentist," I announced to my wife.

"If it’s for me, I’m not at home."

The dentist’s secretary was indeed seeking my wife, to remind her that she was due for a checkup. I assured her I would give my wife her message, and I did. However, my wife’s philosophy regarding her teeth is simply not to bother them if they’re not bothering her. And they’re not.

Now I’m riddled with confusion, doubt, and possibly guilt. Is it a crime to fib to the dentist? Is my wife guilty of something for declining to speak to him, or his representative?

I know, of course, that there’s such a thing as freedom of speech, which certainly must mean freedom FROM speech, if nothing is what you want to say. But that’s only theory. When the form arrives from the personal property assessor, demanding to know what you own and what it’s worth, you can’t tell him you decline to speak about it. When the draft board sends that notice beginning with "Greetings!" you dare not ignore it. Ditto for the summons to jury duty. And, of course, privacy (unless relating to the termination of a pregnancy) means nothing when you get that 1040 form.

Yes, I realize that these are communications from the government, but that means they originate with public servants. If one can be compelled to speak — or deal with — one’s servants, how can one decline to speak with one’s fellow sovereigns?

Besides, the dentist is licensed by the state, and may receive some state funds for taking care of people on the government dole. If my wife were one of those persons, she might eventually need costly dental work because she skipped a checkup. (The idea that medical/dental checkups can prevent costly therapies down the road has always seemed to me highly dubious, but never is questioned.) But if my wife’s disinclination to have a dental checkup does mean she’ll eventually need more extensive dental treatment, that might take time from the dentist that he could have spent ministering to the dentally subsidized. Isn’t there a law against that? If not, it can only be because no one in Washington has thought of it.

The worst-case scenario is that my wife, by her disregard for dental checkups, could lose her teeth. This, in turn, could result in less than adequate nutrition, and cause systemic disease, resulting in increased expenditures by Medicare. Good grief! My wife — an enemy of the people!!

Is this far-fetched? Well, hardly! Aren’t underage individuals forbidden to buy cigarettes? Why? Because they might get sick from smoking — even before they reach Medicare age. Why should the government be concerned about some youth’s lungs, and not my wife’s teeth? If there isn’t, there should be, and no doubt will be, a law requiring her to have her teeth checked. It’s in the public interest.

Admittedly, the public interest in my wife’s teeth may not be as obvious as the public’s interest in prohibiting her from driving 60 in a 55 MPH zone, but ultimately it’s the same thing. What if everybody neglected dental checkups? Is a whole generation of edentulous old folks not a drag upon American productivity? Think of the time and money spent on making, fitting, and maintaining false teeth, not to mention dental adhesives, dentifrices, and whatever other paraphernalia accompanies the use of dentures.

It’s fashionable today to ban smoking almost everywhere. Is the risk to the body politic of "second-hand" smoke any greater than the risk of dental caries? Doesn’t government edict compel the consumption of fluoridated water, precisely (and presumably) to prevent such dental problems? Why, then, should my wife — or anyone — be permitted to flout the dentist’s recommendation of a checkup? That’s like thumbing your nose at the government!

I am ashamed of my role in aiding my wife’s avoidance of what was, clearly, her civic duty. I shall write my Congressperson urging the passage of a dental-health law requiring such checkups: a law, hopefully, with teeth in it! What’s the good of having teeth if they’re not regulated?

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.

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