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autumn

Every Patient Has A Story

It was a normal Monday morning in our dental office…crazy and busy! The waiting room was over flowing with regularly scheduled patients, patients with emergencies, and the phones were ringing non stop! And in the middle of this Monday morning mayhem, in walks an elderly couple. The man was obviously blind as he was being led by his wife. As they arrived to the front desk, it became evident that the old man was also hard of hearing. In a very loud voice he said, “I broke my denture and I need it repaired now! I have a banquet on Thursday that I must attend.” A demanding, grumpy old man was the last thing we needed to add to our Monday morning chaos.

As I introduced myself (I am the President of Operations), I took a look at the schedule and knew there was no way we would be able to see this man within the next hour. And to be honest, I didn’t really want him to be waiting for a long time in case he caused a scene in our crowded waiting room. So, I asked him if he could come back after lunch. I could tell from his expression that this is not what he wanted to hear, but he said that would be okay. As he and his wife turned and slowly made their way out, I thought to myself that I had successfully averted a disaster in the waiting room!

There are those moments in our lives, when we simply need to step back, assess the situation and learn. I believe it is in these precious and rare moments that we grow and become better people. Little did I know that this grumpy old man and his sweet little wife would provide me with an opportunity to become a better person and thereby, a better dental office manager.

As the couple was leaving, our Office Manager, Keri, said to me, “Look at them. It is going to be so much harder for them to leave and come back than for us to simply put them in the consult room, fill out paperwork, and then let the doctor check his denture in the consult room.” She was right! I was so caught up in the busyness of the day and being glad that I avoided a possible confrontation, that I lost my compassion. I failed to put myself in the old man’s shoes. While I didn’t want him to have a long wait, I mostly didn’t like his loud and demanding attitude. Either way, I wasn’t putting his needs first. I ran out and invited the couple back into the office to be seen right away.

While in the consult room, the old man began to tell me his life story. He told me that he used to a famous chef in New Jersey. He owned a restaurant that catered to Hollywood stars, professional athletes and politicians. After retiring, he and his wife moved to South Carolina to escape the cold northeast winters.

After checking his denture, the doctor informed the old man that his denture could not be repaired in the office. It would have to be sent to the lab and that because it was so badly broken, there was a chance the lab would not be able to repair it. The old man looked so distraught and explained how important it was that he has his denture back by Thursday. Before he left, he made me promise that I would do what I could. He really needed his denture for Thursday’s event. By this point, I was invested in this man and his plight. I promised that I would do everything in my power to get his denture back on time.

After explaining the situation to the lab, they gave me their word the denture would be their top priority. Thankfully, the lab came through on time! They explained that they did a “patch” job, but the denture would last long enough while new ones could be made. I felt relief knowing the old man would be excited to attend his banquet with all of his teeth.

The old man arrived at our office on Thursday, once again being led in by his wife. As she escorted him back to the operatory, one would have thought that this old fella had just won the lottery. He was ecstatic! We have never been thanked so much by any other patient. He even tried to tip me and the doctor! He was thrilled with what he called the “extra-mile” service we provided. As the old couple left our office that day, I was reminded that my work is more than a job. Little did I know that I would never again see that old man who had taught me so much about my work and how to do it better.

Fast forward one month.

I take a call from a lady who explains that she is a caretaker for an elderly woman that needs to have her teeth cleaned. As I was scheduling the appointment, I realized who the patient was. She is the wife of the old man with the broken denture. I was genuinely excited to hear from her. I shared with the caretaker how the old lady brought her husband in last month to repair his denture, and I had been thinking about him wondering how his banquet turned out.

I will never forget the words of the caretaker as she broke the news to me of the old gentleman’s death, just two weeks after his “banquet.” And then she told me the true story about his denture. You see, the old man was dying of cancer. His son was flying in that week to see his father for what most likely would be the last time ever. The old man did not want his son’s last memories of his father to be of him without teeth. He wanted his son to remember him smiling, and he wanted to be able to smile without embarrassment. “I just thought you ought to know the real story,” the caretaker explained. With tears in my eyes, I was speechless.

So what’s the lesson here for all of us in dentistry? We work in an industry where our patients are often demanding and even rude. It is easy to place judgment upon these people and treat them without courtesy or compassion.

The elderly couple’s story should teach us all a lesson about difficult patients. We may never know what’s behind such behavior. Some patients are scared, while others may be worried about how they will pay for their visit. Some may be like the old man, who did not want to be pitied, but wanted to hold on to his self respect. But the truth is, every patient that walks into our practice has a story, and every story matters. We don’t always know what our patients are going through, but we do know one thing; We have an opportunity to make a difference in every patient’s life, even the most difficult of patients. I often think about how I almost missed this important lesson, but thanks to Keri who spoke up, I was able to play a part in the celebration of one old man’s life and learn a valuable lesson…. Every patient has a story.

-Brent Ayers