For About and By Caregivers

A Trip to the Dentist

By Micki LaVres

For 18 years I tried – unsuccessfully – to get Frank to the dentist for a cleaning. He felt that cleaning his teeth was a paltry undertaking when you considered the significance of his bigger problem, being paralyzed from the chest down.

Only after suffering for several days with a tooth ache did he finally allow me to make an appointment, but under one condition. The dentist would have to treat him in his wheelchair without being transferred to the exam chair. The Yellow Book saved the day and led us to Dr. Bob who was ready and willing to accommodate the special needs of my somewhat stubborn husband.

The big day arrived and we packed up for our trip to the dentist. I say packed up because any excursion with Frank is a major undertaking; but that’s another story. It was a beautiful sunny day in the middle of June and our spirits were high. The office was easy to locate, but parking very limited. The only public parking had an underground entrance with a clearance too low for our van.

We decided to take a chance and parked in a lot across the street, despite signs warning that violators would be towed. Once parked and unloaded, we walked two blocks to the office, thankful for the lovely weather.

The building was completely accessible and, as Dr. Bob promised, Frank did not have to leave his wheelchair. The culprit tooth was painlessly removed after several shots of novocaine. We made a follow up appointment and prepared to leave. Little did we know the fun was about to begin.

Frank uses an electric wheelchair with a sip-n-puff control system. He sips or puffs into an air tube straw that essentially “drives” the chair; hard sip to go in reverse, hard puff to go forward, soft sip to go left, soft puff to go right. (You can imagine the result with a bout of hiccups!)Well, the novocaine had done its job. His mouth – so numb you could painlessly pull a tooth – was also too numb to feel the air tube straw that controls the chair.

Not a problem. I could drive for him. I flipped on the attendant control and carefully navigated him through the exam room, down the hallway, and out the front door.

Once outside, I noticed a glitch. The chair was not responding properly. I had to push and steer with both hands on the handlebars. At the same time, I had to keep pressure on the attendant toggle switch located eight inches away. In theory this would work fine, if I had been born with fingers like ET.

I pushed Frank and his 250 pound wheelchair with all my strength as we crossed the intersection and started up the incline of the sidewalk. The beautiful sunny day had turned hot and humid, 92 degrees without a trace of shade between us and our van.

I was giving myself a private pep talk when suddenly I felt the distinctive sensation of an ill-timed hot flash.

Any woman who’s been there knows exactly what I’m talking about. (You guys, and more fortunate ladies, imagine wearing a down jacket, mittens and polar boots – in the Sahara.) I pictured myself passing out from heat stroke, my pinky finger caught on the attendant control with Frank dragging me slowly up the sidewalk.

In my exhaustion, I stopped pushing. “I have to stop and rest,” I told Frank. My husband – the eternal optimist – had what he thought was a brilliant idea. His mouth was too numb to puff, but he might be able to sip, which would move the chair in reverse. I agreed without hesitation, swinging the chair around so fast the Lindy Hoppers would have been proud.

My husband, the mechanical wizard, was correct again and with a simple sip, the chair began moving slowly in reverse. I was able to steer from behind with little effort and Frank was delighted that he could help.

We continued moving backwards slowly up the sidewalk as I turned my head from left to right looking behind me for obstacles in our path. Keep in mind we were on a fairly busy downtown street after 4:00 pm with traffic picking up as people headed home.

I noticed a few cars slowing, the occupants looking in our direction as they passed. I heard a beep-beep from one car. Someone waved from another.

Only when two very sweet ladies actually stopped and asked if we needed help, did I realize how utterly ridiculous we must have looked. Of course I declined their assistance, assuring them that we were fine and had everything under control. (The truth: I was ready to jump in Frank’s lap and drive the chair myself.)

I thought things could get no more absurd, but they did. Without warning, every puffy white cloud in the sky turned gloomy gray and buckets of rain came pouring down. Within seconds, we were drenched. I must admit the rain was refreshing, so I whispered a half-hearted prayer of thanks to God for helping me out with that hot flash. Still, I couldn’t help wondering how the rain would affect the electric units on Frank’s wheelchair.

“Can you go any faster?” I asked.

Frank nodded his head and with another sip we were in second gear. I had to pick up the pace while moving in reverse – a little hop, then a skip.

My fancy footwork reminded me of the Clark’s Teaberry gum commercial. Flashback to 1968: Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass are playing that cute jingle. Could I remember the steps to “The Teaberry Shuffle”? I bet that would stop some traffic. Fortunately, my grown-up brain kicked in: “Micki, you’re 50 years old, not 10!” I resisted the nostalgic impulse and tried to act like a big girl.

As we neared the parking lot, I spotted our van. Hooray, it hadn’t been towed. Then, just as suddenly as it started, the rain stopped and the shining sun returned to a clear blue sky. The sensation had returned to Frank’s mouth enough for him to puff his way forward and steer for himself. Our adventure had come to a pleasant end.

We continued to our van with a sigh of relief, a prayer of thanks and a little Teaberry Shuffle.

I am a mother, homemaker, and full-time caregiver to my husband who sustained a spinal cord injury in 1990 and was paralyzed from the chest down. We share a 40-acre farm in northwest Missouri with two horses, three dogs, seven cats and my parents who live next door. Living with disability has forced us to deal with depression, overcome obstacles, accept the circumstances, learn to laugh, be grateful for our blessings, and anticipate the future. I would like to give a message of hope to others in my writing.


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