Many of you know that I spend a fair amount of weekends treating National Guard soldiers. I am privileged to work with an outstanding team of dentists, physicians, auxiliary personnel, and administrators. Our dental team is charged with providing soldiers with triage and very basic dental services. Our mission is to free our heroes of any condition which could lead to needless pain and suffering, especially if they are deployed overseas to defend our nation. We are civilians serving in collaboration with our State Dental Officers, practicing dentists who belong to the Guard. Our team sees between 200 and 400 soldiers a day, which is no small feat.
I spent this past Saturday with our terrific team at a military base near my home here in New Jersey. Our work load was light but steady and, as usual, we were moving nicely through our process. About halfway through our day, I encountered a Sergeant who appeared very stone faced and almost hostile, despite my best efforts to establish a small relationship in the short time I have with these people. The Sergeant refused to answer any of the necessary questions I had about his medical history. He clearly was looking at me as some tooth fixer who had no business doing anything beyond looking at his teeth and getting him out of my presence.
I was clearly thrown by the Sergeant’s hostility towards the universally (?) likable, relationship centered, people- loving me. I always take time to make our soldiers comfortable; yet, I was met with borderline nastiness from this sergeant. Because of his lack of cooperation, I was unable to finish his triage to the standards the military needed, but I also knew that I could not coerce this man into giving me the information I needed. So I curtly dismissed him, forms filled out as best I could, and sent him on his way. He won, I lost, so I thought. Something was very wrong and I just couldn’t pinpoint it.
During my usual fifteen minute lunch break, I discussed this soldier’s situation with our State Dental Officer, an insightful, compassionate Colonel who is deeply dedicated to the well-being of his soldiers. I’ve known this man for 7 years and we share a tremendous respect for one another. The Colonel informed me that the soldiers we were seeing were all MMRs- Multiple Medical Resource; that is, they are affected by past combat experience (read PTSD). That explained everything and reinforced a principle that is key to dentistry ( and life, for that matter).).
You see, my Sergeant-with-an-attitude turns out to be a hero. He is carrying demons in his soul that neither I nor any untrained individual could comprehend. He must have encountered some awful emotional trauma overseas that he could not bear to discuss with a stranger. Although I very wisely backed off insisting that he disclose information that I was legitimately “entitled” to know, I did not fully grant this gentleman the dignity and love (yes, I said love) he has earned from me and 300 million people he has never met.
The lesson here for all of us is that every person we encounter has a story. At any given moment, we all are carrying thoughts of love, happiness, sorrow, stress, triumph, and tragedy. And at any given moment, any one of those emotions could dictate how we react to anything or anyone.
In our military work, there is not a whole lot of time to conduct relationship – creating interviews and guide people to their best dental and health decisions. But in our practices and in our daily lives, we have multiple opportunities to connect, co- discover, and empower other human beings to become better. A relationship centered dentist (and spouse, parent, sibling, friend, etc) has the ability to spend time understanding the person who is asking for help. Relationships of legitimate concern and empathy lead to outcomes that are magical, healing, and inspiring. Relationships reward us not only with a great career which brings us a good livelihood, but also with things that transcend material wealth. It’s no wonder that Dr Bob Barkley taught us that the health of the relationship is far more important than the health of the patient.
I love treating fearful patients and I love my soldiers. Yesterday’s experience was a reminder that I am a very good, but not perfect practitioner of relationship centered work and life. I hope I can meet my Sergeant-with-an-attitude sometime in the future and thank him for making me a better person. And I do hope that when I meet him again that he will be freed of the burden he bears from his work defending all of us.
If you see a soldier, please thank him or her. Commit an act of kindness toward them if you can. They take tremendous risk so that we can live as we do.
And when that patient -with-an – attitude visits your office, take the time you need to learn their story. Whether it’s a minute, and hour, or 3 appointments, make it your highest priority to know your patient. When you know who they are, what their joys, sorrows, triumphs and defeats are AND when they know you’re sincerely concerned, your work will be meaningful, therapeutic, and tremendously rewarding.
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