Alex Goes to the Dentist

Does anyone actually like going to the dentist? No one I know! Alex’s first dental experience was a complete disaster. But truthfully, I didn’t expect anything different; everything is harder when autism comes into play. I don’t think he understood what was happening or what we wanted him to do, i.e., sit still and open his mouth. We made several attempts for the dentist to look in his mouth but he just wouldn’t hold still. There I was, leaning over in an awkward position, holding him down in the dentist chair. He was screaming, crying, and thrashing around; I was practically dripping with sweat and on the verge of tears myself. By the end of the appointment, Alex was huddled on the floor in a corner, sobbing and exhausted. The doctor had not been able to check Alex’s teeth, let alone do any cleaning. In order to try again, we set up another appointment and the dentist prescribed a drug called chloral hydrate which we were to give him approximately a half hour before. It was a chore to get it into him, but somehow we did it. It worked! He was totally sedated by the time we arrived and the dentist was able to check his teeth and clean them. From then on, we went to the pharmacy for a small bottle of choloral hydrate to use before each visit.

Alex’s love for fruit snacks certainly did no favors for his teeth! That, combined with the difficulty of brushing his teeth adequately, made for an inordinate amount of cavities. (At age 28, he still cannot brush his own teeth; he will simply suck on the brush. So, we have to do it for him. Every day. Twice a day.) I also suspect we have a weak enamel gene in our family. My husband and I both had quite a few cavities growing up, and of our six children, several had lots of caries while another child­­ who was eating the same exact foods ­­had none at all!

Alex has had extensive dental work since he was small; not just cavities, but caps and extractions too. Upon moving to VT, we were extremely apprehensive about locating a dentist who might be willing and able to work with us and Alex. Would they want to use chloral hydrate? Some other drug? Would it be safe? I ended up calling quite a few places before finding a pediatric dental practice that seemed appropriate for our situation.

It turned out to be a great fit for Alex. Dr. B was very gentle and patient, as were all the staff. I have always felt bad for any doctors, nurses, and dentists treating my son since there is no way for them to know if he is feeling pain or discomfort. Novocaine taking effect yet? Does that hurt? He can’t tell us. So, Dr. B’s approach was to save up a lot of cavities, extractions, etc., then do all the work at once at the “Pain Free” unit at a major New England hospital. We took Alex there 3 or 4 times over the years.

While Alex probably did not enjoy these outings, I confess that my husband and I kind of did! Upon walking into the hospital, it seemed more like a mall: restaurants, shops, and wonderful spaces to sit and do nothing . . . but wait. Low lighting, people speaking in hushed tones, it felt relaxing! Looking back now, perhaps it’s weird how much fun I thought those trips were.

To be there at 7 am, we had to leave home at 6, which meant getting up at 4:30­ish. Our older children must have looked after the younger ones because I don’t remember enlisting the help of anyone outside our family. When we arrived, we’d go directly to the “Pain Free” unit and check Alex in. Paul and I stayed for a few minutes until all was ready for them to administer the general anesthesia. It was our cue to leave when Dr. B said, “Okay Mom, give him a kiss and say ‘I love you’.” I’d kiss his forehead and then Paul and I would go to one of their family waiting rooms which were equipped with a TV, refrigerator, microwave, comfortable sofas, and table and chairs. They gave us a beeper so they could summon us back when the dental work was completed, or I suppose, in case something went wrong and they needed us there ASAP.

At that point we could sit and read or watch TV. One time I brought a big craft bag and cropped photos for a scrapbook album. After awhile we’d go downstairs and bring back some cocoa and pastries, or sandwiches and juice. On our last trip there, I remember that we watched the funeral of former President Ronald Reagan. Sometimes other waiting parents would come into the room for a short time, but usually we had it to ourselves. When the procedure was done, they’d beep us and we would go to the recovery area to sit with Alex while he was waking up. He always seemed so confused and disoriented. I’d wipe off the dried blood from around his mouth. They let him watch Disney movies and gave him popsicles, so that part he liked.

When Alex turned 21 years old, the pediatric dentist said he wouldn’t be able to take care of him any longer. (We were grateful that he’d continued to treat him for as long as he did!) The last few years, it was starting to feel strange bringing a 6 ­foot tall, 180 lb. man to an office where all the other patients were preschoolers, elementary­-age children, and an occasional teenager. The little kids would stare at him, confused; their parents would glance sideways, out of curiosity. So Alex became a patient of our regular family dentist. After so many years with Dr. B, Alex has actually become quite a good patient in the dentist’s chair even without the chloral hydrate. Even the smallest of accomplishments when raising an autistic child should be celebrated.

 

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A Long Ago Prayer

Once when I was visiting with a friend, I shared with her an experience I’d had some years earlier. It was of a spiritual nature (I’d even call it sacred) amd so much so that I had not previously shared it with anyone. However, this friend was going through a difficult time in her life that made me feel as though it would be helpful to her if I shared this experience.

I told her about the memory I have of praying about my son Alex when I suddenly felt engulfed by hopelessness and sadness. I think he was probably about four years old. By this time the reality of his diagnosis had become clear to us. We were feeling quite apprehensive about all the unknowns and uncertaintities we would be facing in the future due to his autism. I was still grappling with the pain and sorrow that come when you realize you need to let go of the promise and dreams of the child you thought you had. You know, the child that would go to school in regular classes like all the other kids, the one who’d have friends and all go to each other’s birthday parties, play baseball or be in the band, who’d go to college, have jobs, get married, buy a house, and ultimately give me beautiful little grand-babies to hold, sign to, read to, and rock in my rocking chair.

Suddenly your dreams, this future you’ve envisioned, is ripped from you. In this particular instance, though, I was not concentrating on my pain, but Alex’s. I was not looking at his life from my perspective, but his. What would it be like not to have any real friends? Not be picked, ever, to be on someone’s team for kickball at recess? Having EVERYTHING be so hard, all the time. Not even being able to say “My stomach hurts” or “I have a headache.” Not be able to tell me what he’s thinking or feeling, what he believes or dreams about. Not be able to tell me when he’s nervous or anxious or afraid. Is he ever afraid? Of what? I don’t know! Not be able to tell me a kid on the bus bullied him. Not be able to tell me and his dad what he wants for Christmas or his next birthday. Not be able to say, “Good night, Mom, I love you.”

So I was praying and pouring out my heart to God, voicing my concerns and pain at what Alex would face in his life. I though of all the opportunities he’d miss, all the experiences he’d never have. In thinking of how hard, how painful, life might end up being for him, I cried out in anguish to God, “Don’t you love him?” And the answer that instantaneously came to my mind was, “Of course I do . . . that’s why I sent him to you.”

I was immediately humbled. I realized the great trust God was showing by entrusting this sweet, vulnerable spirit to my nurturing care. I actually felt I’d been granted a great privilege to be Alex’s mother here on earth. Each time I recalled my questioning plea and God’s comforting answer, I felt that God was aware of us­­, me, Alex, all of us.

That is not the end of this story, however. A few years after sharing that experience with my friend, I happened to be skimming through one of my old journals. I came across the entry where I’d recorded that prayer experience. The thing that totally shocked me was this: I had not been praying about Alex, but about one of my other children! This son had been struggling to keep up in his schoolwork and having a difficult time with some other behavioral issues, though nothing really serious. I was so surprised that that prayer was in fact about this other son, not about Alex at all. For years I’d been cherishing that memory that I thought was about Alex. Funny, and strange, how it became transposed in my head from one son to another.

The truth is that God DID send me both of these exceptional spirits. That’s how I feel about all of my children, that they truly are extraordinary people. I am so glad to be the mother of each one of them. That is one reason I always work so hard to do the very best I can; I want to show God my gratitude for the great gifts he has given me, not just in sending Alex to be a part of my family, but in sending me the six wonderful children I have.