Overcoming Dentophobia in SMA

If in the past someone had told me that one day I wouldn’t mind at all going to the dentist, I would have laughed and added, “Not a chance!” It seems I’ve been severely dentophobic (fearful of visiting the dentist) most of my life — with good reason, I feel. It’s taken a lot to change that, but here in San Miguel de Allende it appears I have.

First, some history. A few, vivid, dentist-related horror stories come to mind:

I must have been about three, sitting quietly (“like a good girl,” as my mother had instructed) in the otherwise empty waiting room of my mother’s dentist’s office in northern New Jersey, keeping watch over my sleeping baby sister in her stroller, while my mother was in the dentist’s chair behind the closed door.

I heard the dentist’s loud drill. I heard my mother cry out in pain, then whimper as the loud whirring drilling continued. I felt helpless and alone. I wanted to rescue my mother from her torturer somehow, but I knew I couldn’t abandon my sleeping sister. And, besides, the handle to the door that would lead me to where my mother was, was too high for me to reach.

Not long after this, at the dinner table one night, I heard my parents say that that dentist’s wife had committed suicide – she’d hung herself in their home. Oddly, I wasn’t surprised. Dentists, I thought at the time, were torturers.

Later, when I was in grammar school, the dentist I had to see in our town was a drinking buddy of my father’s. His office was near my school, so when necessary I went alone to see him after class on my way home. He was a large and gruff man who smelled of booze and had no patience for children, especially nervous, squirming kids like me. He waved the drill in front of my face like a weapon and shouted at me to sit still or else he’d strap me to the chair.

That dentist told me if I didn’t brush my teeth three times a day (“carry a toothbrush with you at all times!”) I’d have false teeth (“like an old lady”) by the time I turned twenty. So I became a devout teeth-brusher, in the hopes that I’d succeed in avoiding dentist visits forevermore.

Much later, when I lived in New York, I needed a lot of long overdue dental work done, but I stubbornly refused to endure any dentist’s drill. The sound of the drill, the sight of it, the feel of it jangling every cell in my brain, terrified me; and no amount of Novocaine would suffice to quell my fears. I used to say to friends, only half-jokingly, that I’d rather stand before a firing squad than sit in a dentist’s chair. I later learned that I wasn’t alone in this; an estimated 2.7 percent of men and 4.6 percent of women have dentophobia.

So I found a dentist near where I was living then in the City who would give me gas to knock me totally out for the duration of the dental procedures I needed. I visited him several times without mishap, until one day when I came to from the gas I found his hand deeply under my blouse. I never went back to him, and I did nothing about this incident. But I subsequently learned that another of his female patients took him to court; he lost his license and went to prison.

The well-regarded woman dentist whom I saw when I lived in Taos, New Mexico, was also willing to give me gas. She brought her little white fluffy dog – named Chewy — to her office, and the dog’s job was to comfort and entertain her patients. But the costs of the work I needed done came to many thousands of dollars, so visiting her long-term became prohibitive.

Stock photo (by Caroline LM, on un- splash.com)

Fast forward to my current life now as an American retiree living on Social Security here in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

Last year a dear friend here referred me to a young Mexican dentist, named Hugo Nieto (40 years old), whom I’ve come to love and can’t speak highly enough of. He has quelled my fears. He is kind (as most Mexicans are, in my experience) and gentle-yet-strong (a winning combination in a man, in my opinion), extremely competent and intelligent, and genuinely caring. It seems he understands my dentophobia (perhaps he studied this phenomenon in dental school?), and he treats me with great respect (as most young Mexicans are raised to treat older people).

He explains – in words and pictures, drawing on his white board, and showing my teeth-photos and ex-rays on the large screen on his wall – every procedure, step by step, as if I were an intelligent person who has the right to know what’s happening. He takes his time with me, never rushing. He calls me by name.

He apologizes when I flinch a bit. “Sorry, Bonnie,” he says softly, as if to say, I’m not here to hurt you. I feel a strong urge to hug him.

And, as an added bonus, his fees are affordable for me. Last year I had an old, broken bridge replaced by a three-tooth implant, and the cost came to a small fraction of what it would have cost in the United States.

So now, when I have a dental issue – such as an old filling that fell out last month – I’m no longer afraid to visit the dentist. I look forward to seeing “my” Doctor Hugo again and being made to feel special, understood, and cared-for. If only all dentists everywhere could do the same for everyone.

26 thoughts on “Overcoming Dentophobia in SMA”

  1. It’s no wonder you had dentophobia! What horrible experiences you’ve had. So glad you found Dr. Hugo and I will remember his name. In fact, passing it along today to a friend who had a very bad experience recently with an SMA dentist. xoxoxo

  2. Poor Bonnie…but a happy ending! I never had delta phobia until recently! The long process of dental implants was just awful for me…so glad yours was more positive! Knee replacement was a piece of cake compared to the year long wait! And here in the US the bill was not cheap! Old age is fraught with health woes and dental woes not the least! Hoping we can enjoy our final decade(s?) eating yummy foods!

    1. Thank you for sharing, Shari! Yes, I understand that a lot of Americans come down to Mexico specifically to have their implants done here — a sort of dental vacation. Not a bad idea!

  3. I started going to a dentist in Mexico when I needed several crowns, due to the cost. It’s just over the border south of Deming–American Dental in Palomas. I’ve very happy with them and saved a bundle!

    1. Yes, that may be true, Jim! But I think he was already popular before I wrote this post; everybody I know knows him and loves him. It takes a while to get an appointment. 🙂

  4. Thank you for this blog story. I too, have some dental phobia, but no terrifying stories. I will keep set up some time with Dr. Hugo Nieto, soon. I have heard of him. Having a kind, sensitive dentist is important. I once went to a dentist in Puerto Vallarta and in the middle of the session i asked what he was doing and he said, “What the hell do you think I’m doing!” I excused myself and left. Not all dentist, even in Mexico, are the same.

  5. Dear Bonnie, You’re so right about Dr. Hugo. He’s absolutely wonderful. Only problem is that now that so many know about him, it’s not easy to get an appointment. I saw him recently for a consult on an old crown and he spent a good 40 minutes explaining the possibilities for repair. Truly amazing. His cleanings are the best I’ve ever had and practically pain free.

  6. Many of us have horrible childhood memories of trips to the dentist! So happy that you found Dr Hugo. He is indeed a jewel of a man and a dentist.

  7. Dear Bon,

    I can identify with what you write. I am also terrified of the dentist. It doesn’t matter how nice they are. But I I am delighted you found someone you feel comfortable with.


    1. Ah, I never knew this about you, Paul, dear. One more (big) thing we have in common. But I’m sure if you were to come here and see Dr. Hugo, he would put you at ease. He has that gift.

  8. Wow! Such synchronicity. My past 4 months have been an adventure in how to navigate the dental heath care system in the US during covid, and how to come to terms with severe, consistent pain. I’ve learned a lot in the process, esp. about the nature of pain, resilience and what we humans can endure both physically and mentally–gave me a bit more perspective Thanks for this one Bonnie, sending much love from Taos!!

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