So, I had what felt like a unique experience today:  I went to the dentist to have my teeth cleaned.  Now this isn’t unique because I’d never done it before (thankfully no dental issues) – it was my first real experience as a patient in the COVID-19 era.  I got just the smallest taste of what my patients are experiencing.

I had made the appointment months ago and promptly forgot about it until I got the email remainder from the office.  Then I was faced with the decision – delay appropriate, routine medical care because of COVID-19, or face the risk.  Now here in Massachusetts this is an easier decision than it is in places where COVID-19 cases are spiking (like AZ, TX, FL), but it’s still a choice to be made.  The office reviewed their safety protocols, and they seemed adequate, so I went in (although with some trepidation).

At the appointment I was struck by how they had been able to appropriately streamline the process to minimize my contact with anyone in the office other than the hygienist and the dentist.

But then, while lying in the chair with my mouth open (spewing whatever germs may reside there all over the room), my hygienist was putting herself directly at risk of infection.  Now she was wearing full PPE (gown, gloves, N95 mask, and face shield), but it’s still a risk.  When she’s working on me, I’m directly below her, so the face shield isn’t doing much.  And I don’t have COVID-19 (that I know of), so it’s probably low risk.  But at the same time, she’s seeing patients all day long, and exposing herself to that risk.  I felt guilty doing this.  For me the calculation is as follows:  is the risk of infection with COVID-19 worth the benefit of preventing tooth/gum disease by having a routine cleaning?  But for her, the risk is there without a medical benefit.  Now she’s obviously getting compensated and is thus able to feed herself and keep the lights on, but the risk is still there, and I could feel it acutely.  I was just really thankful that she was willing to put her health at risk to provide this service for me and many others.

This made me think of my own practice of hospital medicine, and while it doesn’t seem particularly praiseworthy (I’m just performing my duties and meeting my obligations to my patients), I think I now understand a little bit better why patients are so thankful to me for caring for them during this time. “Just my job,” has all new meaning.

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