Representation In Medicine Matters: Our First Successful Dentist Visit

As a Black doctor myself, I have always felt that there isn’t enough representation in the workplace. In my veterinary class of almost 100 students, I was the only African American female student. While I grew up being a minority in most of my schooling, the higher I went up the educational scale, the more alone I noticed that I was. While this only further fueled my desire to graduate and be the representation I wish I had seen growing up, it wasn’t until we started having issues with routine medical visits with our daughter that it truly started to hit home.

My daughter has a deeply rooted fear of medical professionals, other than myself of course, but me too if I’m ever trying to do anything to HER. From severe constipation as a baby, skin issues, dental issues, and eventually developmental issues, she spent a lot of time in various offices being poked and prodded at and very quickly developed some white coat syndrome. For those who don’t know what that is, it is the fear of a doctor or medical professional, just by them being near. It happens a lot in animals too. Have you ever noticed your pet act strangely when you pull up at the vet’s office? Or as soon as the vet comes in? That is white coat syndrome; and my daughter has it too.

Not Impressed with Being at the Doctor.

Really badly.

As her doctor visits became more frequent and her reactions to them became worse, we sought out the advice of multiple behaviorists to figure out if there was a deeper issue. While nothing was found, thankfully, the problem still existed and continued to worsen over time.

Digging Deeper

Being a minority in pretty much every situation, I have become hypervigilant in noting the ethnicities of the healthcare professionals that we work with and how that plays a role in the way that Muffin reacts to them. Muffin is a social butterfly and loves EVERYBODY. She had a phase where her introduction was, “Hi. I’m your best friend.” She constantly melts the hearts of strangers because she’s such a sweet girl.

Toddler Riah enjoying some screen time before the doctor comes in.

We all have general biases, right? During one particularly terrible episode of “Lariah goes to the Dentist”, there was a Black Dental Assistant present who asked Lariah to come here during a meltdown. She talked to her and for a MINUTE, it seemed like she was going to calm down and let the dentist look at her teeth. She didn’t, but she gave it some serious thought and she had not ever done that. Typically, she is so overwhelmed, that she literally cannot adhere to reason, but for those few moments, she tried.

A few weeks ago, I spent a whole day looking up new healthcare providers for us. Why did it take an entire day? Because in light of the events of 2020 involving the Black Lives Matter movement and being continually overstimulated by the never-ending occurrences of injustices to Black people, I decided that I was going to be more intentional in my support for all things Black. Period.

Not Giving Into Doubt

I’ll be honest, I felt a little silly and like I could’ve used my time “more productively” after spending that day looking for all Black healthcare providers. It took FOREVER. My insurance portal didn’t have pictures next to each doctor, so I would have to look up the person’s name and/or practice on google and look for an “About the Providers” page on each one to determine their ethnicity. Let me tell you, THERE ARE NOT A LOT OF BLACK PROVIDERS IN MY AREA. My husband likes to constantly remind me that we live in the “country”. We definitely do not, but we’re pretty far away from the greater Phoenix area. I quickly discovered that we were going to have to drive quite a ways to achieve my goal.

After all my efforts, we had appointments full of an all-Black cast: Pediatric Dentist, General Dentist, Pediatrician, Primary Providers, Dermatologist, & OBGYN! I was very proud but also felt a little weird about it because this would be the first time that I had done something like this with so much intention. I had my doubts that my efforts would yield the results that I was hoping for.

Yesterday, my husband went to our new dentist. He said that he liked the dentist, but wasn’t really feeling the vibe of the clinic. I didn’t go with him, so it wasn’t like I had anything else to go on other than his experience. For obvious reasons, it made me sad because I had spent so much time searching for that office. It also was apparently a 50-minute drive from our house, which I didn’t realize when I booked it. Either way, I held out hope that Lariah’s dentist visit today would be better!

Confirmation for my Decisions

Today was ground-breaking for Muffin! This was her first time going to the dentist since we moved to Arizona and it was also the first dentist visit that was a complete SUCCESS.

August 2016- Muffin’s First Dentist Visit..before it went wrong.

When I say that the anxiety about going to the dentist was SO deep for her, she literally would cry at the mention of it and throw up when she got there. Every time. On cue. No one could take a single look in her mouth because she was too busy kicking and screaming out of fear. People tend to assume that it’s from “all the work she’s had done”, but don’t know that she was under general anesthesia when she had that work done; so she doesn’t remember it. She went to the dentist for the first time around 10 months and has hated it every time since.

Today, she smiled from begin to end of her visit. She did cry when I picked her up from school to go to go to the dentist, but I reminded her to keep an open mind and give it a chance. “The dentist is not scary; you will be okay!” She took this mindset with her to the dentist.

While she was hesitant when we first arrived, she quickly warmed up to her normal self! She was ready to conquer the dentist! She allowed them to take x-rays of her teeth; then moved to the next room where she allowed the Dental Assistant to clean her teeth; NO TEARS OR VOMITING!

I wish I could describe the relief that was on her face when her Black Dentist came in the room and started talking to her. SHE WAS ENAMORED!

The Start of Something New

Muffin thoroughly enjoyed her visit with Dr. Robinson! She told him, “I want to be a Dentist when I grow up. The Dentist is not scary. I want to help people feel better!” Y’all. I almost broke into TEARS. Lariah has never told us what she wanted to be when she grew up. Today, not only did she conquer her fear of the dentist, but she decided that she TOO wants to be a dentist!

The moral of the story is this: TRUST your gut. I couldn’t prove it, but I knew in my heart of hearts that with the right dental office, Muffin would be able to thrive at her appointment! My girl not only got her teeth cleaned, she also had a sealant applied to her 4 teeth. I was a little hesitant to have more than basics done considering how long it took for her to allow anyone to do ANYTHING, but I could tell that she truly trusted her new dentist and was confident that she could handle it.

It was hard.

While getting her sealants, she was getting overstimulated. She wanted to tap out. Her dentist was walking down the hall and came back into the room to support her. We took a break after she finished the first side and we all gave her a pep talk. Dr.Robinson said he would stay by her side for the second half, help her through it, and give her a BIG prize after she finished. She wiped her tears and allowed them to start the second side. As they progressed, she started to get scared and wanted to tap out. He started taking breaths with her and then told her he would count down until it was over. Together, she finished having her sealant applied!

The Power of Representation

I’m not saying that this could not have happened with another doctor, I’m just saying that it didn’t. This was her 4th dentist in her 5 years of life; he is who we will be sticking with! Lariah is so impressed with her new dentist. She’s very excited about her next visit at the beginning of January for a little more work.

As a Black family living in a very divided world, today was a win. Today we bet on Black, we sought out representation and it was a good decision. I’m happy that my daughter got to interact with a dentist who looked like her. He told her that she could do ANYTHING that she puts her mind to and that she can even come back and shadow him when she’s older. He said that we can hold him to it, and we will.

Thank you Dr. Robinson for inspiring my beautiful little Black girl.

And thank you to the wonderful staff at her dentist office!

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