In the fifth grade, I begged my mom for braces. My teeth weren't particularly crooked and as far as 90s pop culture stereotypes went, braces were for nerds. But according to me, braces (and spacers and retainers and the-candy colored rubber bands) were for rich kids.
My good friend Aubrey, who lived in a huge house with her mom and dad, had just gotten some metal in her mouth, when we wrote a tribute song to hockey great Wayne Gretsky called "Black and Gold." Because of all the hardware in Aubrey's mouth she had a cutesy lisp when she sang her part in our duet at our local pizza joint's open mic night. Everyone loved her despite the fact that I was the one who'd been taking professional lessons from Glen, the wooden-legged choir director-slash-soup maker. No, I am not making this up.
So after that night, I was determined to set things straight, starting with my teeth. Needless to say Frances, who'd just sprung for glasses I refused to wear, had some concerns -- namely the fact that braces are like a second mortgage. Never mind if you're renting a room above a junk yard, which we were. So yeah, no braces for you!
Eventually even regular dental check-ups free-falled down our priority list, buried under more important stuff like eating and sleeping indoors. That was 20 years ago, but apparently not much has changed. If anything it's gotten worse. According to a recent HuffPo article, about 5 million kids in the U.S. can't afford to see a dentist. A Frontline report on the subject puts forth that "half of all the children in this country rely on Medicaid or state insurance" but because reimbursement rates in some states (like Florida) are so low only a small number of dentists in those states actually become Medicaid providers.
In my lifetime I've been to the dentist approximately three times. Each one was a crisis situation. At nine, I'd chipped my tooth going down a water slide head first, after college my gums bled for weeks and while I was an intern at the New York Times I had two cavities filled before I fainted from the pain. Apparently I'm not alone.
According to Frontline and the Center for Public Integrity, more than 100 million Americans don't go to the dentist for regular check-ups and cleanings because they can't afford it. There are even these gross predatory lending companies that have popped up to take advantage of the fact that for most Americans having dental work is a luxury. That's when you know a situation has gone rotten, when the vultures start circling in.
More than just a sadistic boogie man, dentists are actually in the business of saving lives. Oral infections can lead to death.
In 2007, 12-year-old Deamonte Driver died from what started as a toothache. His mother was uninsured, then lost her Medicaid coverage. An $80-dollar routine visit probably would have saved him. If $80 dollars doesn't sound like a lot to you, then you've never known functional poverty, which I define as living on the barest of essentials -- roof, water, cheap carbs and walking.
By 2014, seven years after Deamonte's death, the health care reform fought for by the Obama Administration is set to cover most children's dental care with either private or public options. That is if the Supreme Court allows it. But I'm not a child.
According to the Center for Disease Control, nearly 45 million Americans are without dental coverage, which if you don't even have plain ole medical insurance is pretty expensive. An average $400-dollar plan that goes beyond just regular cleanings coverage for major dental work is capped at around $1,500 dollars. As of the last time I went to the dentist six years ago (seriously) I needed four wisdom teeth removed, two of which were impacted, not to mention my very angry gums and four very crooked front teeth. That's why I'm afraid of the big bad dentist, not because it might hurt, but because I know it's going to hurt -- a lot.